On December 12, 2013, a criminal court in Caleta Olivia, Santa Cruz Province of Argentina, found 11 oil workers guilty of trumped up charges, mostly connected to the killing of a police officer six years prior. Three workers got life imprisonment for “aggravated homicide”: Inocencio Cortez, José Rosales and Hugo González. Four received five-year sentences, and one, a minor at the time of the events, awaits a hearing from the juvenile justice system. The sentenced workers remain free pending appeal. But there is very little time to waste; a serious solidarity movement is needed to demand that these convictions be thrown out.
The case was a blatant frame-up from beginning to end, riddled with holes and inconsistencies, based on storm trooper-style “investigations.” No-one was ever identified as the shooter, and no murder weapon was ever found. In fact there was not one iota of objective evidence connecting any of these workers to the death of the cop – Jose Sayago. With blatant disregard for legal norms, the prosecutor even openly admitted that police had detained and tortured various workers they rounded up after Sayago died, as part of their process of building a case.
These men worked for the Spanish transnational REPSOL oil company. They were demanding justice on a number of matters – including equal pay for equal work and a decrease in the high taxation rates which have been imposed on workers’ paychecks in Argentina. The use of low wage subcontracted or outsourced labor and the heavy taxation of workers’ paychecks have been two components of a general assault perpetrated by the Argentine government. Like capitalism in crisis anywhere, the Argentine government has been trying to solve the economic crisis on the backs of the working class and poor. In reality, these workers were framed by the Argentine state because they were involved in an inspiring, militant struggle that dealt with issues that are drastically important to our class.
Santa Cruz is the home province of the late President Nestor Kirchner and current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, his widow. The court decision was rendered only by 3 judges; they don’t use a jury system in Argentina. And it is widely known that pressure was exerted on judges there, who have long been intimately connected to the Kirchners and the ruling political party, the Peronist Justicialista Party. It could thus hardly be a coincidence that they got this verdict which exactly serves the interests of the Argentine capitalist class and their imperialist overlords. As Argentine capitalism goes down the tubes, there have been more pockets of resistance developing among militant workers and youth. The outrageous conviction of these workers is an outstanding example of the criminalization of protest that has become a big trend in Argentina as elsewhere. The ruling class of the profit-making capitalist system has a great interest in squashing workers’ fight-backs. And workers everywhere have an interest in doing what we can to build international solidarity.
The Las Heras oil workers’ uprising began in December 2005, with mobilizations by unemployed workers demanding new jobs from REPSOL. The struggle spread to employed oil workers, both direct hires and subcontracted workers, who were earning only 60% of the wages of the direct company hires. They went on strike, using tactics including blocking roads and occupying company facilities.
But the workers had to deal with local police and the Gendarmería Nacional, sent in by the Federal government. Both the contract workers’ union and the established union of oil workers at REPSOL are tied to the Peronist government regime, and did absolutely nothing to support the workers’ cause or defend them against assaults by the local or national cops.
Of Las Heras’ population of 9,300, as many as 1000 were in the streets at various times. Given the boldness of their fight, and the solid support they received from the community, the strikers were able to win some of their demands. Then on February 10, 2006, the cops arrested a strike leader, Mario Navarro, while he was giving an interview at a local radio station, obviously with the aim of decapitating the popular resistance. After they took Navarro into custody, hundreds of workers surrounded the city building, demanding his release. In the ensuing confrontation, a number of people were injured. As far as Officer Sayago goes, all that is known for sure is that at one point he was shot and died a few hours later.
It was then that the police and gendarmes went into the highest gear, carrying out mass arrests, in effect treating the entire community as a military zone. They broke into homes and dragged people out without identifying themselves and beat detainees till they “testified” as to who were the supposed “ringleaders” that had killed Sayago and committed other offenses.
It is also notable that the police did not even follow the pretense of a forensic routine. They did not set up a cordon around the crime scene to protect evidence, leading many people to suspect that the cops were concealing their own involvement. In fact, even the local Catholic priest called this whole episode a “witch hunt.” The “witnesses” who had been forced into making statements repudiated their statements as extracted under coercion and torture by the police. When this came out during the trial, the prosecutor wrote in his brief that “to slap someone around or put a bag over his head doesn’t imply telling him what he should say.”
Most Argentines today regard the military dictatorship that ruled their country from 1976-1983 with horror. But while the return of bourgeois democracy to Argentina was obviously welcomed, it has clearly not meant an end to repression, the achievement of real social justice or economic security for the mass of people. In the poor areas, the police kill young men – who they easily label as “criminals” – with impunity. That is the so-called “hair-trigger” approach to policing which is reserved for poor, oppressed youth above all. Workers who fight back against the capitalist attacks also meet state thuggery and repression. Workers like Cortez, Rosales and Gonzalez, whose case we have described here, were held in “preventive” incarceration for three years and were only released in 2009 because that is the maximum time the state can jail someone before they have to have a court hearing.
Along with the wanton state violence rained down on the whole community of Las Heras, this situation is considered to be the worst episode of this type since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago. The growing economic crisis in Argentina and concomitant government attacks on workers, the poor and immigrants, along with the increasingly open capitulation to imperialism, forebodes more attacks like those in the streets and courts, not only in Santa Cruz but across the country. In our view, this reality points to the overall need for a powerful alliance between the working class and all oppressed people. Through united struggles, our class has the power to build a defense against the current attacks –and over time our class has the ability to build a revolutionary party that can lead a fight against this system altogether.
The verdict and sentences meted out in this case were followed by a wave of protests in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. Activities have been carried out by some unions, as well as many socialist-identified organizations, including the Left and Workers Front (an electoral coalition of three main groups: Partido Obrero, Workers Party; Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, Socialist Workers Party, and Izquierda Socialista, Socialist Left). Various human rights groups and many others are all on board.
The approach which we favor calls for a big national campaign to defend these workers, and urges all the powerful trade union federations (there are 5 in Argentina currently) to join and build it through mass mobilization. The campaign also aims at winning serious benefits for all workers and opposing the increased repression and police state measures featured in the Las Heras events.
U.S. workers and unions, as well as youth and student organizations, and all groupings for human rights and social justice, should join together with our Argentine sisters and brothers in defending the Las Heras workers.
1. Some sources listed below, mostly from the Argentine left in Spanish, may aid readers who want to follow both past and future developments on this case.
“Argentina: Condenan a perpetua a los petroleros de Las Heras: seamos miles el 20 de diciembre exigiendo su absolución”, Fracción Trotskista
“Propuesta conjunta de los diputados del Frente de Izquierda en el Congreso por los petroleros de Las Heras”, Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas
“ ‘Una sentencia aberrante’”, Partido Obrero
Partido de la Causa Obrera
“Condenas por el caso de Jorge Sayago”, www.pagina12.com
“Solidarity with the petrol workers of Las Heras (Argentina)”, www.marxist.com
“José Rosales, condemned worker of Las Heras” (youtube video)
“Commission of Friends, Relatives and Prosecuted Workers of Las Heras – YouTube”
“A todas las organizaciones obreras, estudiantiles y organismos de DDHH”, www.agenciacta.org
“Outcry Over Conviction of Oil Workers for Policeman’s Murder,” www.argentinaindependent.com