That time 6,000 workers were massacred in Mexico

On 7 January 1907, around 6,000 protestors were murdered. They were workers from a massive textile factory in Río Blanco, Veracruz, and their families.

Journalist John Kenneth Turner documented the massacre by pretending to be a businessperson in order to get first hand information. A year later, he published his book, Barbarous Mexico, which critiqued the Porfirio Diaz government, US support for the dictator, slavery in Mexico, and more.

On the massacre at Río Blanco, he wrote;

“The 6,000 laborers in the Río Blanco mill were not content with (spending) 13 hours daily in the company of that roaring machinery and in that choking atmosphere, especially as it brought to them only 25 to 37.5 cents. Nor were they content with paying out of such a sum the one American (sic) dollar a week that the company charged for the rental of the two-room, dirt-floor hovels that were their homes. Least of all were they content with the coin in which they were paid, which consisted of credit checks upon the company store…

The operatives were not content. The might of the company towered like a mountain above them, and behind and above the company towered the government. Behind the company stood Diaz himself, for Diaz was not only the government, he was also a heavy stockholder in the company. Yet the operatives prepared to fight. Secretly they organized a union, The Circle of Workers, holding their meetings not en masse, but in small groups in their homes, in order that the authorities might not learn of their purposes.

Immediately upon the company learning that the workers were discussing their troubles, it took action against them. Through the police authorities, it issued a general order forbidding any of the operatives from receiving any visitors whatsoever, even their own relatives being barred, the penalty for violation being the city jail. People who were suspected of having signed the roll of the union were put in prison at once, and a weekly newspaper which was known to be friendly to the workers was swooped down upon, suppressed and the printing plant confiscated. At this juncture a strike was called in the cotton mills in the city of Puebla, in an adjoining state. The mills of Puebla were owned by the same company as owned the Rio Blanco mills, and the operatives thereof were living under similar conditions to those at Rio Blanco.

The Puebla workers went on strike and the company, knowing that they had no resources behind them, decided, as one of its agents told me, “to let nature take its course;” that is, to starve out the workers, as they believed this process could be accomplished inside of a fortnight.

The strikers turned for aid to those of their fellowcraftsmen who were at work in other localities. The Rio Blanco workers themselves were already preparing to strike, but thereupon they decided to wait for a time longer, in order that they might collect from their meager earnings a fund to support their brothers in the city of Puebla. Thus were the ends of the company defeated for the moment, for by living on half rations both workers and strikers were able to eke out their existence.

But no sooner had the company learned the source of strength of the Puebla strikers than the mills at Rio Blanco were shut down and the workers there locked out. Other mills in other localities were shut down and other means taken to prevent any help reaching the Puebla strikers.

Locked out, the Rio Blanco workers promptly assumed the offensive, declared they were on strike and formulated a series of demands calculated in some measure to alleviate the conditions of their lives.

But the demands were unheard … the manager of the company laughed in the faces of the striking men and women. The six thousand starved. For two months they starved. They scoured the surrounding hills for berries, and when the berries were gone they deceived their gnawing stomachs with indigestible roots and herbs gleaned from the mountain sides. In utter despair, they looked to the highest power they knew, Porfirio Diaz. …President Diaz pretended to investigate. He rendered a decision, but his decision was that the mills should reopen and the workers go back to their thirteen hours of dust and machinery on the same terms as they had left them.

True to their promise, the strikers at Rio Blanco prepared to comply. But they were weak from starvation. In order to work they must have sustenance. Consequently on the day of their surrender they gathered in a body in front of the company store opposite the big mill and asked that each of their number be given a certain quantity of corn and beans so that they might be able to live through the first week and until they should be paid their wages. The storekeeper jeered at the request. “To these dogs we will not even give water! ” is the answer he is credited with giving them.

It was then that a woman, Margarita Martinez, exhorted the people to take by force the provisions that had been denied them. This they did. They looted the store, then set fire to it, and finally to the mill across the way. The people had not expected to riot, but the government had expected it. Unknown to the strikers, battalions of regular soldiers were waiting just outside the town, under command of General Rosalio Martinez himself, sub-secretary of war. The strikers had no arms. They were not prepared for revolution. They had intended no mischief, and their outburst was a spontaneous and doubtless a natural one, and one which an officer of the company afterwards confided to me could easily have been taken care of by the local police force, which was strong.

Nevertheless, the soldiers appeared, leaping upon the scene as if out of the ground. Volley after volley was discharged into the crowd at close range. There was no resistance whatsoever. The people were shot down in the streets with no regard for age or sex, many women and children being among the slain. They were pursued to their homes, dragged from their hiding places and shot to death. Some fled to the hills, where they were hunted for days and shot on sight. A company of rural guards which refused to fire on the crowd when the soldiers first arrived were exterminated on the spot.

There are no official figures of the number killed in the Rio Blanco massacre, and if there were any, of course they would be false. Estimates run from two hundred to eight hundred. My information for the Rio Blanco strike was obtained from numerous widely different sources—from an officer of the company itself, from a friend of the governor who rode with the rurals as they chased the fleeing strikers through the hills, from a labor editor who escaped after being hotly pursued for days, from survivors of the strike, from others who had heard the story from eye witnesses. “I don’t know how many were killed,” the man who rode with the rurals told me, “but on the first night after the soldiers came I saw two flat cars piled high with dead and mangled bodies, and there were a good many killed after the first night.”

“Those flat cars,” the same informant told me, “were hauled away by special train that night, hurried to Veracruz, where the bodies were dumped in the harbor as food for the sharks.”

Strikers who were not punished by death were punished in other ways scarcely less terrible. It seems that for the first few hours death was dealt out indiscriminately, but after that some of those who were caught were not killed. Fugitives who were captured after the first two or three days were rounded up in a bull pen, and some five hundred of them were impressed into the army and sent to Quintana Roo. The vice-president and the secretary of the Workers’ Circle were hanged, while the woman orator, Margarita Martinez, was among those sent to the prison of San Juan de UIua.”

Today, Mexican and migrant workers are still extremely exploited, especially in foreign- and local-owned textile factories. Textile workers typically pull 10-hour shifts for just US$50/week. They don’t have time to eat or go to the toilet, and don’t receive benefits like holidays or sick days.

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