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MATAMOROS: Toxic Legacy

by Zeke Minaya and Jim Downing

The FINSA industrial park in the northwest section of Matamoros looks more like a suburban high school campus than the base of operations for some two dozen factories. The tree-lined streets - with names like "Calle Michigan" and "Calle Ohio" - are clean and quiet, as 7,500 employees put in a day's work. The only visible movement is the water in the sewage canal that winds through the industrial park, collecting treated wastewater from the maquiladoras before disappearing into the surrounding neighborhoods.

It's hard to believe that ten years ago this area was described by Time magazine as a "Love Canal in the making."

Back then, tests of the canal water revealed it to be a toxin-laced cocktail, with, for example, concentrations of the solvent xylene - which can cause brain damage - at 6,300 times U.S. drinking water standards.

In the early 1990's, a rash of anencephaly cases (babies born with partially-formed brains or skulls) in Brownsville, Texas - across the border from Matamoros - attracted national attention to the region's environmental contamination. In the 1992 presidential debates, Ross Perot argued against NAFTA using a US News and World Report photograph of the polluted FINSA wastewater canal running through a neighborhood. Lawsuits were filed against corporations operating here - including General Motors, AT&T, and Fisher Price - but no conclusive link between the maquilas and the birth defects was made. Now, say industry executives, after settling the anencephaly case out of court and installing new safeguards on the ground, all that is in the past.

"I'm not saying that [dumping] didn't happen, but if you ask me to give you some [examples], I couldn't even tell you one in the last 10 years," says Bill Wolfe, president of NovaLink, a business shelter that contracts out its FINSA-based facilities to companies setting up shop in Mexico. On a recent tour, Mr. Wolfe proudly points out his factory's water- and waste-recycling equipment. Though he has little interaction with Mexican regulators, he is confident that the maquila industry's self-policing keeps things clean. "The fly-by-nighters - you'll never completely cure that, but we make sure that that's small and doesn't get a foothold here," he says.

But community activists, environmental monitors and some officials in both the U.S. and Mexico are convinced toxic contamination remains a serious problem here. Lax environmental enforcement combined with the sheer volume of maquiladoras - their numbers in Matamoros have tripled to 119 since 1986 - have kept concerns about the region's toxic legacy alive. Among these concerns:

- Short-staffed and under-funded Mexican enforcement agencies cannot effectively police maquilas for environmental compliance; one local official says that factory-commissioned tests are doctored;
- Information on the fate of hazardous maquila waste remains spotty at best; thousands of tons of hazardous waste simply go "missing" annually;
- Workers in Matamoros and neighboring cities complain of frequent exposure to toxics on the job;
- A lack of independent oversight and reliable data on factory emissions, hazardous waste management, and worker health and safety conditions leaves citizens with few avenues for redress.

Mr. Wolfe points out the window of his office to a white one-story plant identical to the one he is sitting in and recalls surveying the land from a helicopter. It was 1980, and he was looking for a place to build a new General Motors plant. "There was nothing but goats and grass here," he remembers. The site that would eventually become FINSA had no building, plumbing or electricity lines. Just railroad tracks leading in and out of the border town.

* * *

Domingo Gonzalez stops his shabby brown Buick at the unprotected railroad crossing that divides FINSA from the city's shantytowns, where many of Matamoros's estimated 700,000 residents live. With a shudder, the last two cars separate and drift east towards town as the train lurches west. No railroad worker is in sight. One of the 25,000 gallon tankers is marked as containing Hydrogen Fluoride, an acid used in semiconductor manufacturing that violently attacks living tissue, burning to the bone at high concentrations. Mr. Gonzalez points to the car, "That's from the the QimicaFlor plant … an accident with that car, and you have another Bhopal."

Mr. Gonzalez, 51, is an environmental health advocate from Brownsville. He has done community-level organizing to fight water and air pollution in Matamoros for over a decade. Though still limping from a car accident that broke his leg in two places six months ago, he seems tireless during a tour of the city.

"Has the situation improved? The short answer is, 'It has not.'" says Mr. Gonzalez. He notes evidence of changes in the maquila operations in Matamoros: "The stuff that a camera can take a picture of - that has stopped, or is very discrete. They got smarter," he says of the factory operators.

Mr. Gonzalez pulls off the road and into Colonia Chorizo, a long-standing squatter neighborhood. The plywood houses have tin roofs and small, sickly trees in the yards. The colonia is named for its shape, stretched out like a sausage along the industrial park rail line in a part of Matamoros known as "Chemical Row." Twenty yards beyond the tracks is a fence, behind which looms the Stepan Chemical plant. A long line of parked grain cars full of corn fumigated hours ago with the pesticide Methyl Bromide separates the colonia from the Stepan drainage ditch. According to Mr. Gonzalez, the plant regularly drained the waste from its pesticide and household cleaner operations into Colonia Chorizo. Xylene was once found in the soil here at 53,000 times acceptable levels.

For a dollar, a young man named Jose digs a soil sample from the black earth of a ditch running from the plant. The dirt reeks of paint thinner. Jose shakes his head and takes a sniff of glue from a soda can he keeps in the pocket of his glossy yellow jacket, a castoff from a Milwaukee bowling team. "Every time the company would run off their water or it rained," Jose says, "the people up and down the neighborhood would all get sick." He mimics a violent cough, shaking his shoulders and doubling over. Completing his performance, he looks up and shrugs. "But every year they would throw a great party and hand out shampoo and soap and food," he says.

This toxic inheritance is the byproduct of a wave of frantic industrial development in Matamoros that began in 1965 with the Border Industrialization Program (BIP). A local business group's internet site boasts that Mexico's first maquila took root in Matamoros.

Brownsville and Matamoros, which had stagnated economically for nearly a century, embraced the possibility of growth. During the American Civil war, Matamoros was a booming confederate port, matching New Orleans as a center of commerce and culture. After the war, the region declined, and never regained its importance.

Maquila-induced prosperity came slowly - in 1985, 20 years after the BIP, Brownsville had a poverty rate of 50%. Across the border in Matamoros, a chronic shortage of housing drove migrants from interior states to squat in shantytowns on the city's fringes.

The region's institutions and infrastructure were not ready for the rapid influx of factories as the maquiladora program became the centerpiece of Mexico's export economy strategy. Dr. Antonio Zavaleta, a medical anthropologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville, notes that corporations "put industrialization on top of an old system of politics … so the enforcement aspect and the planning aspects of the industrialization were for the most part not present. And so there were some notable abuses … cases where there was indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste."

Legal and media attention to maquila pollution came to a head with the 1993 anencephaly lawsuit. The case was settled out of court in 1995 for $17 million - the defendant corporations denied any wrongdoing - but unease lingered in Brownsville: "The way it was settled made people think that they [the maquilas] had something to hide," said Jackie Lockett, former Brownsville City Council member.

The public spotlight prompted some changes in Matamoros. Several of the largest polluting industries left town entirely. The FINSA park was the recipient of a wastewater treatment project from a NAFTA-related development fund. A sample taken in mid-November from the FINSA wastewater canal and analyzed at MicroBac laboratories in Brownsville showed only barely detectable levels of industrial solvents, well within US and Mexican wastewater discharge standards.

Rick Luna, community coordinator for the Brownsville Economic Development Council, is optimistic that the maquilas have permanently cleaned up their act. "Maquilas have pretty darn good standards. It's a very different reality from what I think has been the impression. I hadn't heard about that whole anencephaly thing in about two years - and that was the last time a reporter came to visit. I think that's beyond the memory."

Mr. Luna, 30, is one of a wave of educated newcomers drawn by Brownsville's booming economy. A native of San Antonio, he studied economics at Columbia University in New York and then returned to South Texas five years ago, finding good jobs plentiful. He continued, "We finally got a shopping mall … new hotels are going up … and we've got our first apartment complex development in twenty years." On the roof of Luna's office building there is a billboard selling its space to potential advertisers. In bright red, it reads "Bigger is Better."

* * *

Boom optimism may have replaced the environmental worries of the early nineties in Brownsville, but environmental regulators in Matamoros insist that pollution remains a problem. Francisco Guerra, the Matamoros representative of PROFEPA, a division of the Mexican environmental protection agency, works in a small office next to the city's sprawling customs complex.

While an unending stream of cargo trucks enter and exit the country outside his window, Guerra's three phones never stop ringing. Guerra has a staff of three, none of whom have computers. "We don't have a lab," he shrugs. "The maquilas commission their own tests. Certainly the results are doctored. Why wouldn't they be?"

Bill Wolfe denies that maquilas falsify their test results. "That's just a biased opinion from somebody who's trying to make a point - that's just ignorance more than anything else," he says of Mr. Guerra's allegation. "We have the finest treatment machinery here."

Though Mr. Guerra is quick with ideas on how to improve his department's enforcement of environmental regulations, he concedes that his suggestions are little more than a wish-list because of the lack of enabling funds. The $250 charge per sample for independent laboratory analysis of maquila effluent is far beyond Mr. Guerra's budget.

Another key problem along the border is a lack of information. Cyrus Reed, a hazardous waste expert from the Texas Center for Policy Studies in Austin, noted in an October 2000 report that "Despite the increase in production in facilites believed to produce large amounts of hazardous waste in Mexico, public data on the amount of hazardous waste generated is extremely poor." Because Mexico has a shortage of hazardous waste disposal capacity (there are three certified hazardous material landfills in the entire country, and only one in the border region), the uncertainty regarding the production and location of waste materials is particularly troubling.

The picture of transborder shipments of hazardous materials is even hazier. Under Mexican law, maquilas are required to return waste products which are generated from imported raw materials to the country of origin - usually the US. Determining the amount of this waste that is actually returned is extremely difficult. According to EPA Hazardous Waste Border Coordinator Chris Reiner, "the Mexican and US systems for tracking waste are not compatible now … And now that you have changing administrations in both countries, all bets [on solving the information problem] are off."

Haztraks, the database created by the EPA to help track waste materials being transported from Mexico to the US, has now been offline for over two years. In 1997, the last year for which data are available, Haztraks shows waste exports to the US from only 21 companies in Matamoros. Mr. Reiner explains that this small number doesn't necessarily mean that waste from most of the city's 119 maquilas isn't being picked up by Haztraks: "some of those maquilas don't produce hazardous waste, and the waste for some companies is handled by waste exporting compaies that don't tell [the EPA] which factories they get their waste from." Still, he concedes, "waste flows are very hard to get a handle on."

Weak freedom-of-information law in Mexico makes filling in the missing pieces of the hazardous waste puzzle even more difficult. Enrique Medina, a San Diego-based expert on Mexican environmental policy, notes that "the law gives the public access to federal agency information. But the agency has the right to deny you access to that information if you're not an 'affected party. And 'affected party'," Medina continues, "can be very narrowly defined."

* * *

Martha Ojeda lights another cigarette as she paces in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart. She carries a holstered cell-phone on her belt and answers her frequent calls with a quick "bueno" or "yeah." She glances toward the church. "I wish they would hurry up," she says, "the workers are waiting."

Ms. Ojeda, who spent twenty years employed in maquilas and is now the executive director of the San Antonio-based group Coalition For Justice in the Maquiladoras, is serving as a guide to a small group of Americans that have traveled to Valle Hermosa - thirty miles southwest of Matamoros. They've come to the small city to glimpse what life is like for a few of the nearly one million maquila workers on the border. While Ms. Ojeda drags on her dwindling Marlboro, the group takes photographs of a baptism.

Ms. Ojeda has arranged for them to meet workers from a local Nike-owned maquila. "It's important to bring groups like these [down to Mexico]," she says, "So people on both sides of the border can begin to see how the others live. It's important that information not stop at the border." If she had her way, Ojeda says, she would march the Americans through every maquila on the border and show them first-hand the conditions in the factories.

Though Ms. Ojeda and other labor activists have worked for years to document unsafe conditions inside the maquilas, reliable information about industry practices remains as hard to come by as data on hazardous waste. For now, Ojeda continues to collect worker testimonials and to promote transborder exchanges. But she acknowledges that this approach has its limits. "It's the workers' word against [maquila management]" she says.

On the outside walls of one of the Delphi (a former GM subsidiary) plants back in Matamoros, banners proclaim "10,000,000 hours without a lost-time injury" - a remarkable record.

Garrett Brown, coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, is suspicious of such claims. Reliable data on worker injury rates is simply not available, according to Mr. Brown: "Ostensibly the Mexican government is supposed to do that, but it's notoriously bad …. What happens is there's tremendous pressure on the workers not to report injuries … so in order not to have any lost-time injuries, [the injuries] are not reported, or they're finagled." A Delphi spokesperson declined to comment on Mr. Brown's statements.

Records like Delphi's, according to NovaLink's Bill Wolfe, are indicative of an industry that cares for its employees and gets good work and loyalty in return. "If you treat these kids right," Mr. Wolfe says of his workers, "and give them a good place to go to work, they'll break their back for you. They're looking to progress. This is their career. It's a sewing job to guys like you and I … but this is their career."

When asked if any of the hundreds of workers on his sewing machine lines have suffered from a repetitive stress injury or carpal tunnel syndrome, Mr. Wolfe quickly answers, "No." And when asked if exposure to solvents and glues on the job was a problem in the Matamoros maquiladora industry he responds that, outside of a few renegenade plants, the industry maintains good health and safety conditions. "'Exposure to solvents,' now, that's not anything special in itself. Exposure to solvents in an approved process isn't a problem - we use solvents in our plant. Now, if you're sticking your head in it, that's another thing."

But Manuel Mondragon, a former maquila worker turned organizer for the Matamoros-based group, Pastrol Juvenil Obrera (PJO-Young Christian Workers), says that maquilas are anything but safe for workers. "There is not much that is not incriminating outside the maquiladoras," he says, "But on the other hand if you are talking about health, the place in Matamoros where the greatest damage is being done is not outside of the plants, but inside."

A 1998 study by PJO and a local university, la Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, paints a grim picture of the maquila workplace in Matamoros. According to their findings, eighty-three percent of workers say they receive inadequate safety gear. Sixty percent claim to work in contaminated environments, polluted with excessive noise, chemical emissions or dust. And over four percent have borne a child with a birth defect.

Such information is impossible to verify without independent oversight - there is no reliable birth defects registry in Matamoros. In addition, according to Dr. Zavaleta of UT Brownsville, who conducted several public health studies in Brownsville and Matamoros beginning in the late 1970s, "there's a huge underreporting - underreporting of health issues in our area."

So, border activists continue to build a record. After enough information is gathered, says Mondragon, the next step will be to bring their case to the international arena. "These issues are wrapped up in far-reaching policies," he says. "These are not just local issues. These are national and international questions."

Mondragon, Ojeda and their respective organizations have begun to take that next step by testing the National Administrative Office (NAO), a trinational body created under NAFTA to address labor grievances. PJO, Coalition For Justice in the Maquiladoras, AFL-CIO and over twenty other labor and human rights organizations have presented one of the first complaints to the NAO. It is the first submission to deal solely with matters of health and safety.

The complaint charges that the Mexican government has failed to maintain health and safety standards in two auto parts plants, Auto Trim and Custom Trim, both subsidiaries of Florida-based Breed Technologies. Auto Trim's Matamoros factory produces steering wheels, while the Custom Trim plant in Valle Hermosa makes gear shift knobs.

The submission alleges that the two plants regularly and wantonly exposed their workers to solvents, glues and other toxins on the job without providing adequate protective gear or occupational training. Further, unreasonably high production demands and poor ergonomic planning contributed to frequent accidents.

Pedro Lopez, a soft-spoken 20-year-old from Valle Hermoso was employed at Custom Trim until he was fired, he says, because of his involvement in a strike. Mr. Lopez says he does not miss the long dulling hours at the plant. "The yellow glue was so strong. After two hours of working with it you would get headaches, your hands would get stained. We didn't have gloves, we didn't have face masks. The only protection we received was a pair of glasses."

When Mr. Lopez and other employees began to notice that many of their coworkers were suffering from persistent headaches, skin irritations, and nose bleeds, they did not have to look far to find the cause of their ailments: "The fumes come from the glue, it would hurt after breathing it in for a while. Your eyes would get irritated even with the protective glasses." Auto Trim and Breed Technologies declined comment for this story.

Mondragon says the workers have little hope that results will come from their complaint in the short-term; of the 23 NAO submissions to date, none have resulted in sanctions. "The [NAO] has been weak. But we have to be mindful of the big picture," he says as he lights a cigarette.

* * *

From the roof of a small grocery store in south Matamoros, where the rough paved roads give way to even rougher dirt, FINSA hulks on the northwest horizon. The grocery store crossroads, where the converted school buses that carry workers home from the maquilas turn and head back towards downtown, is, according to the most recent map of the city, at the very edge of Matamoros.

But Matamoros does not stop; it sprawls past public boundaries and civic maps. Here is where many of the new arrivals to Matamoros - drawn by promise of a job in the factories - come to live. They piece together whatever building materials they can find - scraps of wood, sheets of metal. These neighborhoods do not have water, electricity, or sanitation service. Garbage is either burnt or thrown into the canal that cuts through their center.

Across from the grocery store and over a rickety, wooden bridge, a large crowd is gathered. In matching green polo shirts, members of the Matamoros Rotary Club stand around a pick-up truck, handing out bundles of canned goods and other food to residents of the colonia, 28 De Mayo.

Manuel Rovlo, a member of the Club, watches the people take their bundles, offer their thanks and head back to their small homes. He says that because he is not a doctor or a scientist, his opinions on the health effects of maquilas would matter little. He has heard rumors that some maquilas, trying to extend their profits, dump their waste under the cover of night, but he knows nothing about that, he says. What Mr. Rovlo is sure of is that these people, many of whom he has just handed the only food they will see for the week, are not seeing any benefits from either the maquilas or NAFTA. "It's the same all over the border. In other cities. They are growing too fast, some faster than Matamoros" he says. "Maquiladoras pay some taxes, but very little to the city. Not enough. [Maquiladoras] are like ghosts, haunting the border. To think, this is progress."