THE 1,250-mile stretch of border between Mexico and the US is a lawless area in a way the old Wild West never was. It reeks of lawlessness, literally stinks of it. Institutionalised lawlessness.
In the town of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Texas, the earth and the water supply, from which comes all the fish consumed in the area, are poisoned. People sleep, eat and work in contaminated surroundings; children paddle in industrial waste with barely a stirring of any environmental law.
More than 40 anencephalic (brainless) babies have been born in the past two and a half years to mothers who work in the maquiladoras, the predominantly American-owned factories. Just across the river in Brownsville, Texas, there have been 30 cases officially noted. They are believed to be the result of toxic pollution.
This border is the one area in the world where a developed country comes right up against the Third World. Those simple souls who believe that one of the problems of bringing aid to the Third World is the immense distances which separate us from them have only to look along the Mexican border to see what can happen when the developed world gets a Third World country within hand’s reach. Industrial pestilence on such a scale could not be caused by just a few rogue factories. It can only be the result of collusion between the administrations of two “civilised” nations, the US and Mexico.
There is a tacit agreement to disregard the safeguards factory workers have won over the century and deny protection to the environment in the name of “economic progress” – the Free Trade Agreement.
Mexico actually has admirable environmental laws, to which it draws the attention of the international community with pride. The sleight of hand is that they are not applied when it comes to “free trade” strategies for the border.
For those weary of tales of the dispossessed in foreign lands, this border offers a new nightmare relevant to their own, growth-obsessed, future. The nightmare which we too could find ourselves in exists now in Mexico – suddenly all the environmental knowledge accumulated over a generation is denied.
When the industrialists along the border are challenged about the effects of their pollution, the arguments have to begin again from zero. Medical staff have to prove that pesticides ingested could be harmful; that lead can cause brain damage; that children wading barefoot in toxic waste might be at risk.
Maria Teresa Mendusa, a community organiser, lives in the Unions Colony, an old workers’ estate at Matamoros, in a tiny four-roomed cottage with her father, grandfather, brother, sister-in-law and infant nephews and nieces.
At one time she worked for a TV set manufacturer but suffered a spinal injury and now survives, in her forties, as a part-time seamstress.
“I belong to the Committee of the Unions Colony,” she said, “where we work against industrial chemical companies on Union Avenue. In this one avenue there are four companies. Behind us there is a fifth, Quimica Fluor, a subsidiary of Dupont. We want the companies re-sited to a special industrial park outside the town.
“The majority of our people, mostly women, work for the maquiladoras industry. Some factories have an all-night shift from 11.30 to 7am and there is no extra pay. The women are aged 16 to 30. After that they will not be employed. But there are some working who are only 14-15. [The legal lower limit is 16.] They work six days a week for $ 30 US a week.” In the US, the rate is up to four times that.
Destitute workers from the south come to work on the border naively believing that although conditions and wages are bad they are on the track towards “progress”. In fact the new “progressive” factories only pay half of what the established Mexican border factories paid.
Maria Teresa said: “Many of the women suffer from bronchial and breathing problems. Their eyes are affected. The streets of Matamoros are full of calcium sulphate, the waste from the Quimica Fluor factory, and hydrofluoric acid. The earth in our avenue is white because of the calcium sulphate. The whole of Matamoros is affected by toxic waste but the municipal authorities allow it.and we have to accept it.”
The most heartbreaking fact about this is that Mexicans are exceptionally clean: even the most impoverished children are in immaculate frocks and freshly laundered jeans as they wander around this miasmic playground. This is a scene you see repeated from the Gulf of Mexico to Ciudad Juarez and beyond to the Pacific.
MATAMOROS is just one example of what happened when the maquiladoras came to the border. This is an arrangement, established in the mid-sixties but booming since l982 after the collapse of the Mexican peso, by which American-owned factories could import their components and raw material from the US, have assembly work done by cheap Mexican labour and re-import the finished products, virtually duty free, back to the US.
There are now some 2,000 of these maquiladoras strung the length of the border, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. The vast majority are producing hazardous waste. The workers are predominantly young women of childbearing age. Matamoros, with a population of about 350,000, mostly migrant workers, has 150 such factories.
The helplessness of the few community workers fighting for decent conditions, their pitiable lack of organisation, was made clear when we brought Maria Teresa to Cecilia, a new colony where conditions are even worse. Although only seven kilometres away, she had never seen it; her struggle for existence did not leave her with enough energy to operate beyond her own tiny community.
Cecilia, a three-year-old shantytown, is only inhabited by “paracaidistas”, or parachutists. These are families who have flocked to the border from the south in search of work. They have no notion that they might have rights. The place is named after the wife of the President of Mexico, in much the way the pious might invoke a patron saint in the hope that she might show them special attention. Judging by the open sewer, a trench as wide as a road filled with greenish-blue industrial waste, which formed a border as far as the eye could see along one length of the colony, the intercession does not appear to have worked.
Cecilia is a dustscape. Stretching as far as the eye can see, it is made up of dwellings cobbled together from corrugated iron, rotting wood or bits of discarded factory material. This wasteland of dust turns to poisonous mud after summer thunderstorms.
Maria Teresa said that her community, which has to endure sewage leakage, would never tolerate an open sewer like the enormous trench we stood by. When environmental laws are enforced in Matamoros it is often with Alice Through The Looking Glass logic.
Sitting in a cafe in Matamoros, I asked Domingo Gonzales, a member of the Texas Centre for Policy Studies, about a local factory around which a safety zone had been created. The factory produces hydrofluoric acid used in refining gasoline to produce high octane fuel. In many places in the US hydrofluoric acid – which burns out the internal organs if inhaled – is being phased out; California has banned its manufacture close to any inhabited zone.
Gonzales said the safety zone had been declared from the central stack out to 2,000 metres of this Quimica Fluor plant. The people who lived in that area were warned that an accident at the plant could be extremely dangerous. The problem was that they had nowhere to go.
“At least legally this ruling should give the workers some redress?” I said.
“It is the reverse,” Gonzales said. “What has really been created is a liability-free zone for the factory owners.”
Human rights have only puny protection in Matamoros. Some protestors have been harassed by the authorities; some have been beaten. Dr Andreas Cuellar is head of the Matamoros Human Rights Committee. Aged 52, born in Matamoros, he is a professor of social science and economics at the local technological college. We met in my air-conditioned motel room. There was a fusty smell because polluted air was being pumped in. But at least it was cool.
“We are more depressed about the ecological situation of Matamoros than traditional human rights problems,” he said. One small success was the establishment of a waste treatment enterprise.
“You mean there was no waste treatment plant at all among 150 factories?”
The municipality agreed to allow factories to dump waste in the local lake; the rest just spills all around the town’s suburbs.
In addition to Dr Cuellar’s committes’s urgent concerns are the mental defects – distinct from the anencephalic problem – now appearing among children born of young women working in the factories. “In a special school for children with mental problems, we have begun to find serious mental defects. We call them ‘Malory children’ after the factory where their mothers worked. It was a factory manufacturing solvents which contain lead. It is closed now.”
“How many children in the past two years?”
“There are 25 so far.”
Brownsville, Matamoros’s American neighbour, inherits pollution from across the bridge. But any hope that education, information or environmental expertise can successfully defeat the will to have “economic progress” at any cost is squashed when you speak to Americans.
I spoke to two American researchers who were concerned that if identified their usefulness in getting information on the damage done to mothers and unborn children would be compromised. They told of a situation where commonsense had lost its status, where you had to prove to visiting government scientists that 150 factories spewing out noxious material into one valley must be damaging to life.
Community leaders are indignant if you make a connection between pollution and President Bush’s Free Trade Agreement. (The only acceptable criticism is the loss of US jobs to Mexican cheap labour.) Educated Texans do not want to be seen by their neighbours as trouble makers and accept a pretence that these are just transitional problems.
The sense of human compassion which momentarily overrides self-interest, an essential mechanism for defending a community against abuse, is atrophied in southern Texas. It is apparently buried in Mexico.