A panel of federal judges in Mexico dropped all criminal charges against Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president and general secretary of the National Mine and Metal Workers Union (Los Mineros), freeing him to return to Mexico from Canada where he has lived in exile

Gómez Urrutia, who was removed as president of the 250,000-member union by Mexican authorities and replaced with a company-backed rival, was repeatedly threatened and forced to leave Mexico in 2006. He also was charged with embezzling $55 million in union funds, an accusation struck down multiple times by the country’s courts. Following the August 28 decision, Gómez Urrutia said through Los Mineros that he plans to return to Mexico by the end of September.

Los Mineros said in a statement that “the next step will be to meet with the highest levels of government” so that Gómez Urrutia and Los Mineros can “contribute, in a framework of mutual respect, to the development of the industry and the defense of the rights of the workers and the well-being of their families.”

Days before he was removed as Los Mineros leader, an explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine trapped 65 mineworkers. Gómez Urrutia said the company and Mexican government only made minimal efforts to rescue the trapped men. The search for survivors was ended and the mine closed after five days, leaving the men entombed and their families waiting outside.

Prior to the explosion, Los Mineros had repeatedly cited dangerous working conditions and the smell of gas at Pasta de Conchos. After the company abandoned the men and sealed the mine, Gómez Urrutia publicly accused the mining company and the Ministry of Labor of “industrial homicide.” In response, the government filed criminal charges against Gómez Urrutia and other union leaders, froze the union’s bank accounts, assisted employers to set up company unions in Los Mineros-represented workplaces, declared the union’s strikes illegal and sent in troops to suppress them.

In 2011, Gómez Urrutia received the AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calling Gómez Urrutia a “truly courageous man who has shown us how difficult and how important it is to be an independent leader of a democratic union.” He also won the 2014 Arthur Svensson Prize granted to individuals or organizations working to promote trade union rights and/or strengthen trade union organizing around the world.

The AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers and IndustriAll were among union organizations worldwide backing Gómez Urrutia and providing an international platform to champion his innocence.

Gómez Urrutia described the struggle by Mexico’s mineworkers for safety and health protections, decent wages and improved working conditions in his 2013 book, Collapse of Dignity, The Story of A Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico. Collapse of Dignity details the February 2006 mine disaster and the subsequent attacks on him and Los Mineros. Most of the victims were temporary contractors with no training and insufficient oxygen supplies.

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