issue 246 - August 1993
There are more than 1,800 foreign-owned, export-only factories (‘maquiladoras’)
operating just inside the Mexican border with the US. Beatriz Johnston Hernandez
looks at what happens when governments ignore the environment in their rush for jobs.
For the last ten years, Maurilio Sanchez has been waging a battle in the Mexican border town of Mexicali, two hours due east of Tijuana. In Sanchez’s neighbourhood of Chilpancingo, a California-based toxic waste disposal service has been dumping poisons into local sewers for years.
The company, Mexaco, handled waste from dozens of maquiladoras in the area but didn’t really know what to do with it, except pour it into steel drums or dump it into the Canyon del Padre which divides Chilpancingo.
Mexaco’s untrained workers had no idea what was in the drums. They would simply dip cups into the barrels, pouring the various liquids without the aid of protective clothing or masks.
Sanchez and his community recently succeeded in closing down Mexaco but the extent of the environmental devastation is only just coming to light. US companies began to set up factories just across the Mexican border nearly 30 years ago. They quickly discovered they could reap huge profits by using cheap Mexican labour to make tax-free products for sale back in the US. They were soon followed by Japanese, Canadian and European corporations, all keen to lower labour costs in search of bigger profits.
Mary Kelly, of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, says the US/Mexico border is an example of what happens when powerful companies from a rich country set up in a poor country ‘with weak regulatory structures and little political motivation to control the nature and pace of development’.
The fact is that Mexican border towns have become garbage dumps for millions of barrels of benzine solvents, pesticides, raw sewage and battery acid spewed out by foreign-owned maquiladoras. The companies also dump toxins into landfills, rivers, populated canyons and storm drains. Millions of gallons of toxic waste are dumped daily into the Rio Grande in Texas. Along the Pacific coast near Tijuana and San Diego an estimated 1,000 gallons-a-second of poisoned water pours into the ocean. But much of the pollution has also come from the new workers who have moved into the region over the past two decades. Sewer systems are now so inadequate that raw faecal matter flows freely into water-wells used for drinking and irrigation.
In Tijuana there are an estimated 700 maquiladoras employing 350,000 workers. Half-a-million people live in cardboard shacks on dirt tracks with no plumbing and no electricity. Constant exposure to untreated sewage means that hepatitis, vibrio cholera and amoebic dysentery are widespread.
At the border’s easternmost reach, around Brownsville in Texas and Matamoros in Mexico the rate of anencephaly – babies born without brains – is four times the national average.
Eighteen families from the region are now sueing 88 of the area’s 100 maquiladoras for exposing the community to xylene, a cleaning solvent that can cause brain haemorrhages as well as lung, liver and kidney damage. A 1979 Finnish study connected neural tubal defects, like anencephaly, to the mother’s exposure to both xylene and toluene, another common chemical in maquilas. Among the companies charged are Zenith, ATT, Fisher-Price and General Motors.
Carmen Rocco, a community doctor leading the fight for information, recently found that the tissues of one of the anencephalic baby’s mothers showed the presence of five different types of pesticides, including three that have been banned in the United States.
Carrillo Aguilar and his family of 15 are typical of many in Matamoras. They live literally in the shadows of the factories, their horizon dotted by maquila smokestacks. From the factories run open ditches full of chemical sludge. Sometimes, says Aguilar, it looks like milky-white ooze, sometimes like putrid black oil.
The streets are thick with calcium sulphate waste. That eye-watering smell of pentachlorylphenol penetrates the air. Some of the effluent comes from Rimir, an auto trim plant and a subsidiary of General Motors. The waste contains xylene at 2.8 million parts per billion, a level so high that the sample itself is considered hazardous. ‘We do our best to keep the children away from the black water,’ says Aguilar, ‘but we’re not always successful.’
All along the Lower Rio Grande Valley maquilas dump unknown quantities of toxic waste into the river, from which 95 per cent of the region’s residents get their drinking water. Scientists say the entire Rio Grande Valley is becoming a toxic disaster zone. Half way between Brownsville and San Diego copper smelters dot the border, throwing toxic fumes into the sky, polluting the water and causing an unprecedented number of severe respiratory illnesses traced to sulphur dioxide emissions.
‘There are lots of water problems around here,’ says Jeff Land, of the El Paso-based Border Ecology Program. ‘The Mexicans want investment at all costs and that means very dirty growth – lots of companies are escaping stricter regulations in the United States by slipping across the border.’
Land’s current struggle is to force smelters on the Mexican side to conform to more stringent US laws. His target is Cananea Copper Smelter, 30 per cent owned by the US company Asarco, which, says Land, ‘should be held responsible for the pollution it’s causing’.
With Mexico, the US and Canada about to be linked in a North American Free Trade deal, environmentalists like Land are bracing themselves. ‘Mexico,’ he says, ‘has the potential of becoming one big maquiladora zone.’
Beatriz Johnston Hernandez is a reporter with Pacific News Service in San Francisco.