March 22, 2002


Reality Check at the Border

By Birgit Nielsen
Special to La Prensa San Diego

"In the context of globalization we are forced to conform to the lifestyles mandated by the model and plan of economic development conceived for a whole planet. This implies the globalization of individuals."

Re. Intento Fallido, Carmela Castrejón Diego

When we think of globalization, it's unlikely many of us think of a militarized border or makeshift houses constructed out of abandoned garage doors with no running water or electricity within walking distance from the US border.

Metales y Derivados

On a recent Reality Tour to Tijuana with the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange, the group's first stop was at the U.S./Mexico border at San Diego, including the 1.5 mile section reinforced by triple fences. Of the total 73 miles of primary and secondary fence along the 2000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, some 75% of these fences are located in the San Diego sector. The fence, constructed from aircraft landing mats from the Gulf War, was deployed along with infrared cameras, motion sensors and a doubling of Border Patrol agents in this Southern California segment of the border as part of Operation Gatekeeper, the U.S. Justice Department's 1994 plan to secure the border and prevent illegal crossings.

"Operation Gatekeeper has closed the door to the US but left the window wide open," says Gilberto (last name unknown) the manager of Casa Del Migrante, a migrant shelter in Tijuana. The policy effectively eliminated highly visible illegal border crossings in the densely populated San Diego sector by pushing migrants east into the desert and mountains where no such beefing up of the Border Patrol has occurred. A steady and continuous flow of migrants into California's agricultural fields has thus been maintained. What Operation Gatekeeper has done, is made the U.S./Mexico border far more deadly. According to the San Diego Coroner's office and the Mexican consulate, at least 720 people have died in this region alone since 1994, not counting 300 unidentified bodies buried in San Diego. The total number of dead since 1994 (for the entire border) is close to 2000.

The same year that the U.S. supposedly locked Mexican migrants out, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) threw the door wide open for products and goods to cross unhindered.

Standing on the heavily guarded, floodlit, motion-sensored side of paradise, we peeked through holes in the fence at San Ysidro, to see shacks and car skeletons on the other side.

Tijuana, with a current population of 2 million is home to Mexico's highest concentration of maquiladoras (approx. 1200 according to the Secretary for Economic Development of Baja California, Manuel Garcia Lepe). Most maquiladoras are run by Asian electronics manufacturers with U.S. offices, enabling them to work under NAFTA, but there are also automotive parts plants. None of the goods made in the maquiladoras stay in Mexico.

We visited SSD Plastics that manufactures plastic casings of TVs and computer monitors. At SSD, as at other maquiladoras, the company supplies the union, aptly named "fantasmas" or phantoms by the local labor rights organizations. Maquila workers are automatically and without their knowledge enrolled in the company union and would not find employment or would risk being fired if found to be a member of an independent union.

Manuel Garcia Lepe, Secretary for Economic Development of Baja California, claims there is no need for independent unions in the maquiladoras. "They don't need it anymore. The companies themselves give more benefits to the workers than the unions themselves," he says.

Benefits include childcare (which, in the case of SSD Plastics, means one childcare center for the entire industrial park of 25 companies and over 2000 workers, half of whom are women). Other benefits include medical coverage through company doctors, subsidized lunches, and transportation.

But actually taking advantage of some of the benefits can be equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. Carmen D. (six and a half years employment at Sanyo and now almost a year at Panasonic) suffers from asthma and has rashes on her body that she suspects to be caused by lead poisoning from soldering transmitters for cell phones and other electronic equipment. After Carmen had piled up a number of sick days, Sanyo told her, "no more sick days."

The shacks of Colonia Chilpancingo.

When Carmen tried to organize independently, Sanyo changed her position, work hours and lunch hour so she'd be working and eating by herself. They also sent guards to accompany her to the bathroom so she would have no contact with fellow workers.

Case closed? Not quite. Carmen, a 31-year-old divorced mother of three, originally from Chiapas is fighting back. She is now an activist with Grupo Factor X, a women's and labor rights organization in Tijuana. She receives legal advice in her pending case against Sanyo from CITTAC (Centro De Informa-cíon para Trabajadoras y Trabajadores) or the Information Center for Workers.

For those of us coming from the affluent North, it was humbling to witness the determination to fight for what is right in light of so much that works against people like Carmen. The feeling that repressive tactics can become a source of empowerment grew among the people on the Reality Tour. The spirit of the individual is precious, and it is human dignity that Carmen and the others are fighting for.

In the basement at a courtyard in Tijuana, we got a preview of local artist/activist Carmela Castrejón Diego's latest art project, Intento Fallido or Failed Attempt. when complete, it will be a wall of adobe bricks cast from torsos (mostly women but with an occasional child and some men). Each brick carries a voice of resistance speaking out against repression. Carmela envisions the finished wall of Intento Fallido wired to a sound system playing the recorded testimonies for the viewers.

This Sunday morning inside the dark basement sparsely lit by old cast-iron lamps in the corners and a cone of light that streams in from the door above, Carmela speaks of inner strength at a time of repression and harassment, "The more they ask, the less they find out." Determination is what counts. They have no right to destroy you and they cannot reach your heart. The torso sculptures contain tiny cuts through which the bundled light of determination will stream forth ever more powerfully.

Barely an hour after being inspired by the wall of Intento Fallido and its powerful testimonies, we stand huddled in the rain on a small pile of dirt overlooking the crumbling cinder-block wall of an abandoned battery recycling plant, Metales y Derivados. The bottom of the wall around the plant is encrusted in several inches of a white powdery substance that has eaten large holes into the cinderblocks. Beyond the wall, there's a large steel drum (part of an incendiary device), dumpsters piled high with car batteries and several 12-foot high piles of dirt and debris. The roof of whatever factory building there once was is gone, and everything¯most prominently the hundreds if not thousands of dead car batteries¯are exposed to the elements.

While in operation from 1972 through 1994, Metales y Derivados increasingly ignored environmental regulations, and proceeded to burn metals and toxic substances that created vast amounts of air pollution. When complaints came in, the company started burning materials at night when no smoke plume was visible. The Mexican government finally closed the plant in 1994 for violation of environmental regulations. Its owner, José Kahn, then returned to San Diego never to be seen or heard from again.

We walked from the toxic site to the edge of the hill overlooking a neighborhood at the bottom of the ravine. This is Colonia Chilpancingo, Lourdes' neighborhood. Lourdes is a former maquila worker and one of the three promontora, labor/environmental rights activists like Carmen accompanying our trip.

Lourdes has been suffering from a persistent rash on her nostrils stretching to her upper lip, which looks swollen and infected. She tells us they started a signature campaign among the community and sent it to the government with demands to clean up the site. The Mexican government's reply was not to worry. Everything was fine as they had put tarps over the debris. The only tarp we saw lay windblown and shredded, barely covering a quarter of the pile's top. The number of birth defects (e.g., babies born without brain stems) in Lourdes' community continues to rise. Allergies, asthma, and throat problems are commonplace ailments. In a renewed effort to get the site above their homes cleaned up the community sent photos, and the official response was that the site had no effect on the community because it was too far away.

According to an independent study of the plant and immediate vicinity by the Environmental Health Coalition, the soil was up to 500 times more contaminated by lead, cadmium and other heavy metals than permissible. There have been no official studies, and the community has received no attention from the Mexican government.

A memorial at the border.

Meanwhile, the river in the canyon below flows in all colors of the rainbow depending on what metallic content and corrosive state figures prominently in the soil that day: red river, blue river, green river.

When asked if Tijuana had any problems with pollution, the Secretary for Economic Development of Baja California, Manuel Garcia Lepe, says, "Not too much in Tijuana. In Mexicali, yes, …but in Tijuana there are no chemicals, only electronics. Mostly electronics.

There are no polluting companies. Also, there are very strong laws, regulations regarding getting rid of water, grey water, water from the companies, you know? Bathrooms and kitchens. They have to treat the water to a certain level that the city will allow the water to go into the sewers. There are no polluting companies anymore."

Stressing Tijuana's proximity to the US and its regulations, he adds, "We have to be similar to the US standards."

Secretary Lepe explains the fortuitous geographic position of Tijuana, the infrastructure and available transportation systems, all of which make Baja California and particularly Tijuana such an attractive place to invest. Lepe showed us a snazzy infomercial and handed out his marketing brochure, Baja California. Mexico's high-tech capital. Expand your competitive advantage. When asked what infrastructure Mexico can supply to the workers that make the investment possible, Lepe replied, "We have a deficit of 24,000 houses right now. We have 12,000 employee houses they're going to build this year. Private companies. Developers will build a house and sell it to the low-income worker for a fixed price."

We drove by low-income housing on the outskirts of Tijuana. A satellite town and an architectural monstrosity, but solid housing nonetheless. I asked Carmela Castrejón whether the low-income bracket included maquiladora workers. "Absolutely not," she replied.

All that many maquila workers can afford are shacks, housing assembled from debris found on the contaminated hillsides, like the 4 ft. x 6 ft. piece of wet plywood a young man carried off the hillside at Metales y Derivados into the canyon that morning. Many people live barely fifty feet from the contaminated river.

The current minimum wage in Mexico is 43.75 Pesos a day, which at the current exchange rate of 9 Pesos to $1 equals about $5 a day. Both Señor Lepe and Jaime Landavaso, plant manager at SSD Plastics, assured us that most maquila-dora workers (who are unskilled) earn 1.8 times the minimum wage. The standard workweek is 48 hours at 6 days or longer shifts, or both. While living expenses may be comparatively lower in Mexico than in the U.S., Jaime Landavaso confirmed that maquiladora workers did not earn a living wage. Hard facts: the cost of clean drinking water in Tijuana for a family of four could be $2-3 a day and the cost of gas in Mexico is higher than it is in the U.S.

Since the beginning of 2001, at least 230,000 maquila workers have lost their jobs due to cutbacks; 85% of the job cuts, according to CITTAC, happened in the Northern region including Tijuana. Mexico's unemployment rate currently runs at close to 30%, and more than two-thirds of the entire population lives in poverty. Carmen D. reported that Panasonic had cut its staff by half because it had become cheaper to manufacture elsewhere, e.g. Indonesia. The reason given to the workers, however, was that "the U.S. is at war, and customers are not buying."

Señor Lepe seemed hard-pressed to acknowledge that there had been much of a noticeable slowdown. "It hasn't shown yet," he said. He added that the maquiladoras closed down between December 16 and February 3 because of "migration back home."

While SSD Plastics had not had to lay off any of their workers, Landavaso saw NAFTA not as an altogether positive situation for the maquiladoras that have been operating in the border regions since the 1960s. Mexico's devaluation of the Peso in 1995 (from 6 to 9 Pesos per dollar) increased manufacturing costs, for example. But Lepe happily continues to sing NAFTA's praises, saying it developed industry and offered economic stimulus.

The fact that China has entered the World Trade Organization is a source of worry for Landavaso. "We are cutting costs for the life of the plant because of the decline in the price of electronics. Toys, and other labor-intensive production lines, have already gone to China," he says.

This should be music to Lepe's ears. As he continues to praise the highly skilled Tijuana workforce, he envisions the 21st century in the advent of the FTAA. The current maquila-doras, manufactures of such ordinary items as TV monitors and automotive parts will move into Central America, clearing the way for high-tech companies pouring into Tijuana to utilize his "highly-skilled work-force" in a new, southern oputpost of Silicon Valley.

We asked Lepe whether he had ever been to see how some of these "high-skilled" laborer-es lived now? "Sometimes they arrive and have to live a little uncomfortably, stay with friends or relatives. … We don't have the power of the economy of the US or Western Europe." He added, "It is difficult to build roads in some places."

Hortensia Hernandez of the community Maclovio Rojas knows what it means to live "a little uncomfortably." She is head of the now 8000-strong independent community on the outskirts of Tijuana. The heart of Maclovio Rojas is its brightly painted community center that overlooks the courtyard bordered by magical murals and a stage. In front of the stage, a group of teenage boys played soccer in the pale dusk.

Hortensia Hernandez is a no-nonsense, instantly likeable woman in her 40s who describes the community as a boat that "we try to keep afloat. Sometimes there's a storm and you see no one out there, and you think you're all alone." The boat receives many visitors and volunteer workers from the U.S. and other countries who, by their presence, give the community a reprieve from government harassment.

The community of Maclovio Rojas applied for land title from the state in 1988 and has been fighting for their rights ever since. The communal land ownership law, which also recognized the ancestral lands of indigenous people, was then in place. According to the law, if you lived on land for longer than five years, you were entitled to the land rights. In 1994, the year of NAFTA, the passing of Article 27 eliminated the system of communal land-ownership, and a year later the government informed the community that the land belonged to someone else.

Maclovio Rojas, which stretches over two prominent hills overlooking the Hyundai maquiladora to the east, is a beacon of empowerment and grace in the face of adversity. The community's plans for the future include building a high school, sports facilities, an expansion of the community gardens, the purchase of goats and eventually their own university. Many of the plans are constantly threatened or delayed because what little funding the community can scrape together is eaten up by legal fees in their defense against the government. The conservative PAN government of Vicente Fox has denied bail for instigators, which are defined, according to Hortensia Hernandez, as anyone holding a meeting with several people present. Six of Maclovio Rojas' compañeros are currently in jail.

After dinner with community members, we stood together in a circle on the concrete floor of the center and held hands. I held the warm hand of Lourdes in my left and the cold hand of a 17-year-old high-school girl from Berkeley with a sudden fit of the giggles in my right. This was human community, representative of itself. On either side of the steel-fenced or unfenced-but-deadly borderline between the US and Mexico, the government is not a government of the people but a representative of transnational corporations.

The maquila workers' only representation are independent labor rights organizations such as CITTAC and Factor X, but it is most certainly neither the company union nor their government. Both admit that maquila workers don't earn a living wage but neither one makes any effort to grant a living wage. They push for the opposite: cost-reduction, layoffs to stay competitive, or threaten to move the plant to a country where they can pay even less. The race to the bottom is on. Those of us on the U.S. side of the border who think we're somehow excluded from this downward spiral that impoverishes all workers across the world, are at best over-optimistic or naive.

I remembered Carmela Castrejón words. it is our inner spirit that they cannot break. The individual and the human spirit are not commodities up for globalization.

All that the close to 2000 people who have died at the U.S./Mexico border had wanted was to improve their lives. All the maquiladora worers want is a living wage, a fair workplace, the right to organize, decent housing with running water and electricity and schools for their childre.

No one should live in or near a 6000-ton toxic waste dump while the responsible factory owner is protected by the U.S. and the Mexican governments. This is the reality of NAFTA, and will be an ever-increasing reality in times of the FTAA.

Nielsen is a former long-time resident of California, currently live in Portland as a freelance writer/translator and is completing an MFA in Writing at Portland State University. She can be e-mailed at

Global Exchange is a San Francisco based non-profit research, education, and action center dedicated to promoting people-to-people ties around the world. Their web address is

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