MATAMOROS, Mexico… There are reasons that political anger boiled up in Matamoros.
It’s a maquiladora city, one of a string of Mexican border towns that offers cheap labor and lax environmental and working standards to an estimated 2,000 factories, mostly American, Canadian and Asian, in a largely tax-free zone.
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the maquiladora boom is expected to accelerate.
But it’s a tinder box. Matamoros is a futuristic nightmare. Pollution is so bad it hurts to breathe. In the colonias, an estimated 500,000 people (some say a million now) live in a town designed for 40,0000 at the most. Everything is covered with a dull, sick-brown mud – especially the children. They play near open sewers; they scavenge in garbage; they have open sores on their bodies, and big bellies bloated from malnutrition.
This is a big industrial town – supposedly the pride of the maquiladora industry – yet it has forgotten about its children. They get sick. Here, and on the Texas side of the border, for example, 64 babies have been born in the last three years with anencephaly, in which the brain stem fails to develop. Last year, one woman gave birth to an anencephalic baby that died shortly after birth; she became pregnant again, and that baby, too, was affected.
The cause is still unknown, although Brownsville environmentalist Domingo Gonzalez suspects airborne contaminants from the factories.
Matamoros is also home to the “Mallory Kids,” the 54 children who were born during the 1980s with severe mental retardation, blindness and lack of muscle co-ordination. It was traced to the powerful solvents that pregnant women worked with at the Mallory radio parts plant. It has since been closed.
“We get very angry,” says veteran political activist Juan Gutierrez Vasquez. “Mexico is such a rich country. Theoretically, we have everything we need. But we also have the PRI. And so you look around here in Matamoros and you see that the Mexican people have nothing at all.”
Two years ago in Matamoros, a grass-roots movement began in opposition to Quimica Fluor, the chemical plant that produces highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid used in refrigeration and for refining gasoline. It can burn through skin and lead to a series of fatal diseases.
The Salinas government wants to expropriate more land around the plant – a so-called Intermediate Safeguard Zone – while residents say the plant should move.
The struggle has brought people together and led to a coalition of the left and right, the rich and poor.
…In Matamoros, environmentalist Gonzalez estimates it would take a minimum of $28 billion just to put in the water plants and proper sewage treatment to serve this community.
In the Colonia Popular, an open sewer runs across from the school. In the Colonia Chorizo, near the Quimica Fluor plant, people worry about poisoning. Fred Millar, director of Toxic Project for the Washington-based Friends of the Earth, has repeatedly warned of the potential for a disaster on the scale of Bhopal, India, where a poisonous gas leak killed at least 2,500 people.
There is the Finsa Industrial Park, where U.S. government testing in 1990 showed discharges of the solvent xylene, which causes brain damage, registering at 6,300 times U.S. drinking water standards.
And Chemical Row, where fumes from insecticides and herbicides hang in the air and make breathing difficult. Xylene in a drainage ditch here was measured at 53,000 times acceptable levels.
A recent study by the Centre for Frontier Projects and the Promotion of Human Rights at nearby Reynosa found that 80 per cent of all maquiladora workers are between the ages of 16 and 25. Most are female.
“Generally because of their age, they don’t have labor experience and that does not give them a clear idea of their rights,” said the report.
And, contrary to claims from the Canadian and Mexican governments and Canadian business groups, that the maquiladoras and the NAFTA are bringing such good times to Mexican workers, their lives aren’t getting better. They’re getting worse.
Between 1982 and 1991, for example, the real wages of Mexican workers, including maquiladora workers, have gone down by 65 per cent.
Maria Gabriella Violante Garcia, 19 and working since she was 15, looks wonderful in her houndstooth-check jacket and perfect makeup as she arrives for the afternoon shift at AT&T in Matamoros.
But, like most other workers, she goes home to a shack, without a toilet, without running water; there are five people in a room, all of them dependent on her for support.
Once, she dreamed of becoming a trial lawyer. She’s had two jobs in just over a year. Companies like to transfer workers, without warning, just as they start to build seniority.
She makes roughly $13 a day ($1.62 an hour), part of it in scrip – the kind of money that companies used to dole out last century to cut costs and ensure that workers had nowhere to buy but the company store.
“She talks like an adult,” Gonzalez says. “She has the responsibilities of an adult.
“But she is only a child. They are all children.”
Maquiladora workers can organize. They organized under Agapito Gonzalez Cavazos, the legendary 77-year-old leader of the Union of Day Laborers and Industrial Workers, which represents 34,000 in Matamoros. His union is an offshot of the CTM, the main Mexican union that is controlled by the PRI.
“Because of Gonzalez’s aggressive tactics, Matamoros had by 1991 become the most unionized town in the border zone,” Andrew Reding, a senior fellow for hemispheric affairs at New York’s World Policy Institute recently told a U.S. congressional hearing on the NAFTA.
A couple of days after the union went on strike in January, 1992, “Gonzalez was arrested by federal police on an unrelated charge of income tax evasion. Though he was eventually released, the arrest served the intended purpose of curtailing the strike,” Reding said.
“It was all a political show,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t play by the rules and that’s how it works here.”
In his office in the Edificio Cardenas Galvan, Gonzalez says he remains defiant. “If they pick me up again, I will go again. I am not afraid of anyone. I will go out fighting.”
But the eight months of arrest last year and legal wrangling have taken their toll. His family had to work a complicated deal to get him released, and his son, union lawyer Agapito Gonzalez Benvavides, is still working out the details. The case takes their time away from union business.
On a flight out of Mexico, a Salvadoran industrialist who owns a lead foundry in Monterrey, an industrial city in the neighboring state of Nueva Leon, explained that he is thrilled with his workers, particularly the women.
Sometimes, he said, the temperature reaches 120 degrees (Fahrenheit) but they just keep on working. They’d never do that in the States, he said.
And then, with pride, he added: “I sell sweat.”