In an unprecedented blow against organized labor, the Mexican government Tuesday arrested the powerful leader of the national oil workers union and at least 15 other union members in a military raid that officials said netted hundreds of automatic weapons.
Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known as La Quina, was detained at his Ciudad Madero home in the coastal state of Tamaulipas after a shoot-out between his bodyguards and federal police backed by the army.
A federal agent was killed in the clash.
Hernandez Galicia faces arms-trafficking charges.
The arrest of the popular and reputedly corrupt union boss set off a demonstration by thousands of angry oil workers through the streets of Mexico City and wildcat strikes in at least half of the refineries of Petroleos Mexicanos, the national oil company known as Pemex. The army occupied two of the refineries.
Mexico is the world's 6th-largest petroleum producer and the chief supplier of the United States' strategic oil reserves. The sagging Mexican economy is dependent on the dollars earned from international oil sales.
On Tuesday afternoon, police surrounded the headquarters of the Mexican Workers Congress, the official labor umbrella group to which the oil workers union belongs.
The congress is one of the pillars of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its initials as the PRI. Party sources said the politically charged decision to arrest Hernandez Galicia could only have been made personally by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
A government spokesman, who declined to be identified, asserted that the oil workers were conspiring against the government.
"This was a decision by the state for reasons of national security. The oil workers had a plan to take over strategic installations of Pemex to destabilize the country and show their force against the government," he said. "This decision ends the long history of blackmail and corruption on the part of the (oil union leaders) . . . a small group who acted outside the law."
The spokesman said the army found more than 200 Uzi submachine guns and 40,000 rounds of ammunition "in packages with La Quina's name on it" in the modest home that serves as the union leader's headquarters. The 66-year-old Hernandez Galicia is the power behind the union of almost 200,000 members, although the secretary general is Salvador Barragan Camacho.
Barragan Camacho told reporters in Mexico City that he escaped arrest because he had left his suburban home for an early dental appointment before soldiers arrived for him. The union leader said Hernandez Galicia had been arrested in his underwear by soldiers who planted the weapons in his house.
Barragan Camacho spent the morning at the headquarters of the Workers Congress and then disappeared.
The federal attorney general's office said that Hernandez Galicia and several other union leaders will be charged with arms trafficking. Among those detained were Jose Sosa Martinez, a former secretary general of the union, and J. Concepcion Ortega Kuri, coordinator of the political affairs for the union.
Hernandez Galicia built the oil workers union into an empire and has been accused of running a parallel government in oil producing areas of the country. He turned oil workers into an elite among organized labor, with wages up to eight times higher than other workers, inexpensive union stores, subsidized housing and even union funeral homes. In exchange, he provided the government with stability in a strategic industry.
Worth Hundreds of Millions
He and Salinas are longtime foes. As secretary of budget and planning under the previous administration, Salinas issued an order to end the traditional practice of automatically granting 50% of oil company construction contracts to the union. However, the union retained its right to receive 2% of the value of all union contracts for "social works." Sources said the union is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Hernandez Galicia has long urged Pemex to buy its own fleet of oil tankers, so that he could unionize those workers, too, and increase his already immense power. Salinas, meanwhile, has proposed breaking the giant oil monopoly into several companies, which potentially would diminish the union's power.
Before Salinas was inaugurated, members of the oil union who hold seats in the federal Chamber of Deputies publicly accused former Pemex chief Mario Ramon Beteta of having embezzled $49 million in a 1985 deal to buy two Yugoslav-built oil tankers. The charge was seen as a power play and challenge to Salinas. A month later, the PRI-controlled chamber dropped the case.
Union leaders viewed Tuesday's arrest as revenge.
"We always knew there would be a response, but we didn't think it would be this," said Altagracia Flores Diaz, a representative of the oil union. "This is a big mistake because they are provoking a confrontation. He (the president) has the armed forces, but we have the people."
A source close to the union who declined to be identified said Hernandez Galicia had told oil workers at a meeting in Tampico on Sunday that he had new evidence against Beteta. The source said the arrest was a preemptive strike.
It is not yet clear whether Fidel Velasquez, head of the Mexican Workers Congress, will support Hernandez Galicia against the president.