Mexico union boss brushes off past woes in political comeback

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A long-exiled Mexican union leader stormed back onto the political stage on Thursday as a newly-minted senator, saying his legal troubles were behind him and pledging to help President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defeat poverty.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Miners’ union leader Napoleon Gomez returned to cheering crowds of union supporters this week after more than a decade of self-imposed exile in Canada, where he fled after the Mexican government accused him of stealing $55 million from a union trust fund. Judges cleared him of criminal wrongdoing in 2014.

Flanked by international labor leaders, Gomez spoke to dozens of reporters cramped into a hotel terrace news conference.

“We were exonerated of all the false accusations, slander and lies,” the 74-year-old Gomez said. “This issue has been totally put behind us and now we want to move forward.”

Alongside him sat labor chiefs from North America and Europe, including Len McCluskey, head of Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, and an ally of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. McCluskey lauded Gomez as a brave defender of workers’ rights.

Gomez said it was a “disgrace” that workers’ wages that were once much higher in Mexico than in China, were now lower.

The Oxford-educated Gomez won office as a hand-picked candidate for Lopez Obrador’s Morena party on the Senate seats awarded under proportional representation rules.

The alliance bolsters Lopez Obrador’s support from organized labor, following his endorsement by Mexico’s main teachers’ union. Both unions were once supporters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, he defeated in the July 1 election.

Gomez dodged a question on whether he would release financial records of the mining and steelworkers union he heads, but hinted he could pursue defamation suits against some of his most prominent critics, including billionaire German Larrea, chief executive of Mexican mining company Grupo Mexico.

Gomez vowed to stay in charge of the union, which his father led for four decades before him, during his six-year term. Before being sworn in as a senator on Wednesday, he was cheered by thousands of union members outside the Senate.

As the news conference ended, several burly men wearing union shirts blocked the exit, saying attendees had to wait inside until Gomez and his entourage had left from a separate door.

Reporting by David Alire Garcia; editing by Grant McCool