WTVD TV (Raleigh, North Carolina)

November 16, 2007

Murder in Mexico

Every year, thousands of workers come to North Carolina legally from Mexico to harvest the fruits and vegetables we buy. But, as you'll see, one man's fight against corruption in Mexico may have led to murder.

Santiago Cruz spent three years working in North Carolina fighting for people who harvest our fruits and vegetables. But, in April, Santiago was murdered.

"We just never thought it would go that far," says Leticia Zavala. She worked with Santiago at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) office in Wayne County.

FLOC is a union representing seven thousand guest workers. They come on temporary visas to work on North Carolina farms.

"Somebody wanted to teach the union a lesson and they used Santiago, they used Santiago for that," says Zavala.

Eyewitness News traveled to Monterrey, Mexico where the murder happened.

The union organizer told Steve Daniels they found Santiago dead on the floor. He'd been beaten in the head. His hands were behind his back, his feet were bound and there was a lot of blood.

Santiago was killed inside the union office. He arrived just six weeks before the murder. He went to Mexico to help fight corrupt recruiters who are taking advantage of people who want jobs in North Carolina.

"We're very aware of the danger of what we're doing," says Castulo Benavides.

Benavides spent years working on North Carolina farms before going to work for the union two years ago. He thinks Santiago's killers were targeting him.

"The corrupt recruiters are losing a lot of money because of our efforts and the fight we're conducting," says Benavides.

In Mexico, we discovered why workers are so desperate to go to North Carolina. They have to work an entire day here in Mexico to earn what they make in just one hour in North Carolina.

Corrupt recruiters take advantage of people who are trying to support their families and trying to emerge from poverty. Some recruiters charge hundreds even thousands of dollars to get them jobs.

But Cruz and Castulo have been traveling across Mexico telling people they don't need to pay anything to get a job in North Carolina.

That's because of a new agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association. North Carolina farmers now pay all the costs to get workers here. Castulo specifically says the North Carolina Growers Association and its recruiter in Mexico, Manpower of the Americas is not involved in Santiago's murder.

FLOC thinks other "fly by night" recruiters may be to blame.

"I think that case highlights more compellingly than anything else what is at stake with these programs," says Mary Bauer.

Bauer is a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She wrote a report about the guest worker program called Close to Slavery.

"We've seen recruiters who make literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in& a few months, says Bauer, continuing, "essentially by extorting it from the workers."

The union has dedicated its office in Mexico to Santiago. They have a picture of him on the wall at a news conference in Raleigh in 2004. The news conference was marking the end of a boycott against the Mount Olive Pickle Company, a victory for workers Santiago worked hard to achieve.

Leticia Zavala wants to keep fighting and helping the people Santiago was fighting for in Mexico.

"We're making some deep pockets smaller," says Zavala. "The work we're doing is impacting a lot of people," she continues, "and we're everybody's enemy."

Mexican police have arrested one person in connection with Santiago's murder. They've been looking for two other people.