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Border Blues

United States

new internationalist
issue 251 - January 1994

Lines in the sand: only the railroad marks the border between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the foreground and the US in the distance.
Border blues
David Ransom crosses the Rio Grande between
El Paso and Ciudad Juárez - a border where the barriers
to people are going up as the barriers to trade come down.

Passport. Toothbrush. Currency. I fumble through my pockets, rehearsing the familiar border checklist. I feel surreptitious, as if my next step might trigger the wrath of border guards lurking everywhere on this, one of the most heavily fortified frontiers in the world.

My heart pounds as I walk like a circus animal through a tunnel of chain-link fencing to the middle of the bridge over the Rio Grande. A small polished obelisk marks the spot where the US and Mexico, North and South, meet. Sitting with her back against the obelisk is a barefoot young mother, a child in her lap. I cannot tell if she is begging or not.

Beneath us, on the river, people paddle rafts through the poisoned water, a moat between banks lined with concrete. A disused railway bridge is painted black and has a steel barrier set across it. A boy sits astride the barrier, gazing into the surveillance systems of El Paso. Razor wire, fences, walls, obstacles of all kinds litter a barren track of land that runs like a military trench along the frontier. This is the ‘Tortilla Curtain’. It is still being built. One day it may even be visible from space, as they say you can see the Great Wall of China.

I walk on down into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. I imagine that crossing this frontier will be like breaking into a bank. But no-one has checked me out of the US and no-one seems interested in checking me in to Mexico. I go in search of someone who wants to have a look at my passport. I can find no-one, not even the bemused old man in an official-looking kiosk who turns out to be selling lottery tickets.

Just a couple of miles north from the city centre, where the Rio Grande heads off across New Mexico and leaves behind its duties as the borderline, you can walk from Mexico into the United States without knowing that you’ve done so. Mexicans go shopping in the mall on the outskirts of El Paso.

For these two cities, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, have grown up through history as one, in some kind of delicate equilibrium between the urge to divide and the desire to unite.

‘I don’t think it will ever be possible to make a clear division between this country and Mexico,’ says Delia Gomez of the Las Americas Asylum Project in El Paso. ‘People go back and forth and it’s very, very difficult to measure who’s actually living here and who is not... It’s not too hard to get across the river, but then you can’t get beyond the various checkpoints and helicopters and all kinds of things.’

El Paso/Ciudad Juárez is in the middle of a gigantic and beautiful desert. You have to cross hundreds of kilometres of it to reach anywhere else in any direction. Here, on the roads that lead to Los Angeles, Albuquerque or San Antonio, the border police lie in wait.

I make off for my first taste of Ciudad Juárez.

There’s no denying it – the place is different. From the soiled architecture, the hum of air conditioning and the sombre, depopulated streets of a provincial Texas town you hit the bewildering bustle of an exploding Latin American city. Everything disintegrates in a racket of human voices and clapped-out combust- ion engines. This is the Latin America I know and love.

Anapra, the newest colonia on the outskirts of the city, is laid out in a precise grid across the bare desert. In two years it has grown from nothing to some 5,000 people. Houses begin with wooden pallets and roofing felt and grow through cement blocks into brick. The sterility of the desert keeps people reasonably healthy – despite the fact that their drinking water comes from steel barrels which originally contained toxic substances.

Travel along the mountainside above Ciudad Juárez and eventually you reach the city rubbish dump. Here, in a cloud of reeking dust, one of Mexico’s multitudinous co-operatives controls an extremely efficient operation scavenging for scrap. A herd of goats gets in first to deal with the vegetable matter; then, in orderly succession, the dealers in cardboard, metal, plastics. By the end of the operation there’s hardly anything left.

‘These people are wonderful, just wonderful people,’ says Frank, a Mexican-American former mailworker with a pragmatic evangelical mission. ‘They will all go to heaven.’ I say this is as near as I can conceive to hell on earth. He’s indignant. ‘You’re wrong,’ he says. ‘Heaven is here.’

Looking out over El Paso he admits to drawbacks. ‘Nobody should have to live like this when they’re within spitting distance of the richest country on earth,’ he says. At the day centre and health clinic he runs for women and children he poses for a photograph in front of the water tanker that doubles as a fire engine. Flash fires periodically engulf the shacks and anyone inside them. The place is a tinderbox.

And it is, I have to add, as degrading a spectacle of utter material destitution as I have ever seen anywhere in Latin America. Frank hurries off to a tiny shed where a mother lies mortally ill after childbirth.

Frank's heaven on earth: women and children from the rubbish dump in Ciudad Juarez gather in the playground outside the day centre.

Turn to the south and you see, sprawling into the desert beneath a burning sun, lakes of gleaming metal. These are the ‘industrial parks’ of the maquiladoras, the duty-free factories that assemble components from the US and export them back as finished products: hi-tech, state-of-the-art ‘plant’ knocking together anything from car engines to jacuzzis and packets of potato chips.

Now, some people argue – and I have sometimes been one of them – that such places represent the best hope there is for the future of the South. Mexico’s growing population needs a million new jobs every year. Manufactured exports, once the exclusive preserve of the North, do not suffer from the same disastrous price fluctuations as copper or sugar, the primary-commodity ghetto into which the South is usually locked. ‘Globalization’ spreads industrial manufacturing for world markets into places like Malaysia and Mexico and, like the move to free trade that goes with it, is good for the South.

At first glance I’m encouraged. The lines of sleek hangars do resemble a credible if not very appealing vision of an industrial future. Nearly 200,000 people have jobs in them. Here are the logos of all the megastars of North American and European multinational manufacturing: General Motors, RCA, Siemens, Philips, Thomsons...

Entering one of them is rather like booking into an American motel: a smart reception area, muzak, thick carpets, the best communications technology, hushed voices, extreme efficiency and a reverential air.

You are labelled and relieved of potentially hazardous objects like cameras and tape recorders. You march past photographs of the management team. You read strict instructions to behave sensibly, follow the yellow-lined path and act with the greatest ergonomic speed.

You enter a spotless cavern housing two writhing conveyor belts, queen insects tended by straight lines of rigid women in coloured bibs, perhaps a hundred seated down either side of each monstrous beast – fed with components at one end and churning out square cardboard egg-boxes at the other.

In the appalling racket you are watching an enterprise: one television set made every minute, one minute for each woman to perform six tasks for nine hours a day, five days a week, with a break of 20 minutes (paid) and another 20 minutes (unpaid) per day.

You have to admit to a sense of awe at the purposefulness of it all. You share a chuckle with the woman whose task it is, as each completed television leaves the production line and heads for the roof, to hit it with a rubber mallet.

But then you become increasingly upset. You go to the ‘training room’ where there’s a replica of the conveyor belt, the blue plastic boxes of components, and you ask how long it takes to train someone for the job. ‘Two days,’ you are told. This is crude assembly work – work that almost anyone can do and no-one with any real choice in the matter really wants.

The hangar is stripped to bare essentials: the workers have just one room of lockers, open to the factory floor. No-one lingers here. There is no contact, no conversation. A canteen serves meals during the break but few people use it – two died of poisoning after eating in the RCA canteen down the road.

Here, by subterfuge, we manage to talk to some of the women before their shift: mere children, they seem, in their bibs. Some of them are. Somehow they all seem to be on the verge of tears as they talk. Yes, they like their jobs, they are good jobs. No, they don’t have time for study: ‘I sleep and I work. I can do nothing else.’

For this they are paid $30 a week and they live in places like Anapra, where the cost of living is actually higher than in El Paso. For this they must sign the Company Policy which says, without the slightest hint of irony at the Orwellian reference: ‘For some of us our Mother Company is very much like a Leader or a Big Brother watching over us; many fail to appreciate just how big and diverse it is.’

Think of the cosiest multinational company you know of in a friendly progressive European country and this is probably it. But it could be another. This is how all televisions are made. And this is what the maquiladora business is all about. Flick through Twin Plant News and you find advertisements like this: ‘COME TO MEXICO. More than 1,500 firms manufacture in Mexico under the maquiladora program and are saving up to $25,000 per direct-labor employee per year!’

Big business it is for Ciudad Juárez and for the border region of Mexico generally. Very large sums of money are made by city bosses who own the land where the plants are built, by the ‘fixers’ and agents who can get things done fast and know whose palms to grease, and by the banks and other dealers who switch money back and forth across the border.

But for the people who work in them – young, sometimes younger than Mexican law permits – it is different. Their young lives are scarred: materially, emotionally, physically and permanently.

This is crude and scandalous exploitation. No amount of globaloney can obscure it. If unions and human-rights organizations and health-care agencies and educational institutions cannot reach these people – and so far they seem to have been unable to do so – then at least the household-name multinational megastars who hide their concentration camps behind the chain-link fences of Ciudad Juárez should be called to account.

Late one night I cross back into El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. To one side is a special fast-track crossing-point for trucks from the maquiladoras. Television sets, jacuzzis, car engines and potato chips zip effortlessly into the US. But there’s a battery of armed guards waiting for the people, and a huge foyer filled with petitioners who seem to have been there always, gazing at a hole in a glass wall into which from time to time they feed packets of documents like sacrificial offerings to the border gods. A big Texan in a stylish uniform thumbs through my passport. He is not satisfied. Then he finds a small green card and says ‘That is what I was looking for. Welcome to the United States.’

The streets of El Paso are empty and silent. Groups of ‘illegals’ huddle together on street corners, chatting and laughing, an occasional glance thrown over a shoulder to check for the patrol vans that elsewhere might be looking for stray dogs. I ask myself who has been caged by the Tortilla Curtain and the answer is, of course, El Paso – caged, that is, by fear and loathing of a people upon whom they depend for the very life of their own city, a place that no-one without a Mexican connection ever cares to visit. Mexicans, meanwhile, respond to the Tortilla Curtain with the sane human instinct to demolish or bypass it. You might say they are eating it.



Maquila sunrise
Industrial manufacturing for export only has been booming
in Mexico and making waves in the US.

Maquiladora or maquila plants are ‘offshore’ activities permitted to import raw materials or parts without restriction for processing in Mexico and export to the US.

Such plants appeared first in the early 1960s in the East and South-East Asian ‘tiger’ economies, and most of the companies involved were foreign-owned, principally in the US. A government-sponsored initiative began in Mexico in 1965 and concentrated on the border area with the US.

Rapid expansion of the maquiladora programme began in 1982 with the Mexican debt crisis, the devaluation of the peso and a sharp fall in real wage levels. Employment in such plants increased from 123,000 in 1982 to almost half a million in 1991, and could reach three million by the end of the century. By the end of the 1980s the maquiladora sector was producing about one-quarter of the country’s manufactured exports. Imports to the US from this sector in Mexico totalled $7.25 billion in 1991.

Since the 1970s the original ‘sweat shop’ small-scale operations employing almost exclusively women have grown in size and the proportion of women workers has fallen to about one-half. There is greater emphasis on technically sophisticated output by major multinational corporations, and ‘zero error’ delivery systems. Much of the trade is intra-firm, or between plants belonging to the same multinational company. Plants are also being sited away from the border, like Nissan’s huge motor plant in Aguascalientes.

The largest single employer is now the transportation (mostly automobile) sector, with over 110,000 employees, followed by electronics with over 100,000 and textiles with about 45,000. There are some 2,000 plants in total.

In the mid-1980s the AFL-CIO union in the US estimated that the US had transferred directly 300,000, and indirectly one million jobs to Mexico. The Mexican Government for its part claimed that 5,000 suppliers in 44 US states shipped raw materials to Mexico. A more recent and precise survey finds that some 100,000 people in 250 work sites in the US saw their jobs shipped to Mexico during the past decade.

With NAFTA, GATT and the reduction of tariffs the ‘comparative advantage’ of manufacturing in Mexico will be restricted more specifically to low labour costs. The tariff advantages of maquiladora manufacturing will disappear.

Sources: Nigel Harris, ‘Mexican trade and Mexico-US economic relations’ jin Neil Harvey (ed) Mexico, Dilemmas of Transition, The Institute of Latin American Studies, London 1993; Harry Browne and Beth Simms, Runaway America, Resource Center Press, Albuquerque, 1993; Twin Plant News, September 1991.

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New Internationalist issue 251 magazine cover This article is from the January 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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