“Pasta de Conchos is very important because it will set a precedent for how mining should operate, how workers should be treated, and [show] that companies should think twice before opening mines”, Cristina Auerbach.

On 19 February for the last 14 years, the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization (Organización Familia Pasta de Conchos) remembers the tragic explosion of the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila which cost 65 miners their lives. After years of struggle, hope and effort by human rights defenders (HRDs), Mexican authorities are finally planning to recover the bodies of the 63 miners still in the mine.

For the families, this episode ruptured their family and community dynamics, as well as creating an unfillable gap which remains to this day. In addition to the painful the absence of their loved ones, they feel the pain of not being able to offer a dignified burial to their fathers, brothers, friends and husbands who are still beneath the earth. For the first time in years, however, the miners’ families hope to finally offer their relatives a fitting farewell.

In their search for justice, and after exhausting all legal remedies available in Mexico, the case was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2010. In March 2018, it was finally accepted, and was one of the first to implicate a mining company. As detailed in the acceptance documents, the Mexican State’s responsibility is manifest in its failure to guarantee the miners’ fundamental rights (like the right to life), as it did not force mining company Grupo México to respect safety norms. This had a fatal result for the mine’s workers and led their families to a point of no return.

The case reached a decisive stage in early 2019: after several months of dialogue with relatives, the Mexican Government committed itself to designing a work plan to recover the trapped miners’ bodies and return them to their families. This would allow the miners’ families to reach closure through “attending to aspects such as justice and holistic reparations”.

The first steps to recover the miners’ bodies have already been realised. A committee of international experts has been formed, with combined experience in coal mining and mining-related accidents. The committee approved a recovery attempt, and the Mexican Geological Survey initiated technical studies (still underway) to assess the most appropriate method. It will then select a mining company to undertake the recovery.

This case is considered emblematic in the history of human rights struggles, and marks the way for future cases related to dangerous working conditions. It highlights that labour rights are an inseparable aspect of human rights, even though the topic rarely comes before the IACHR.

Paradoxically, the Pasta de Conchos case has not been led by trade unions, but has reached the IACHR only through the persistence of HRDs and the miners’ families; the case impacts the strategic interests of major economic and political actors. Cristina Auerbach, director of the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization, has continually been subject to threats and defamatory media statements for her work defending the rights of the miners and their relatives.

Because of the risks Cristina Auerbach faces, PBI Mexico has accompanied both Auerbach and the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization since 2014. As part of this relationship, Auerbach and other organisation members have participated in advocacy tours to Europe, presenting the issues of their coal-mining region and of mining workers across the world.

While PBI Mexico celebrates the success of this long-running struggle, we insist and demand that national and local authorities comply with their obligation to ensure that the HRDs involved in this case can continue to conduct their legitimate human rights work with their physical and psychological integrity intact.