headlines | about |

Maquila Violence in Mexico - Dispatch from Mexico's Internal Border


The Other Campaign at Mexico's Internal Border

March, 2006
John Gibler

On February 14, the day sub-comandante Marcos arrived in the city of Puebla as part of his six-month journey across the country to listen to the voices of the underdogs of the Mexican left, the national newspaper La Jornada carried on its front page the most convincing advertisement for the Zapatistas' Other Campaign to appear in print.

The advertisement in question, a news article in fact, published for the first time the transcriptions of a series of secretly recorded phone conversations between a maquila magnate, Kamel Nacif, the governors of Puebla and Chiapas, and several businessmen. The tapes containing the conversations were delivered anonymously to La Jornada. Throughout the conversations these men - in the crudest of language - celebrate the arrest and planned rape of the independent journalist, Lydia Cacho.

Lydia Cacho is a well-known reporter and novelist who runs a support center in Cancun for women who have been victims of violence. In 2004, Cacho published Los Demonios del Eden: el poder detras de la pornografia (The Demons of Eden: The Power Behind Pornography), a book exposing an underground child prostitution and pornography ring in Cancun. The leader of the ring, Jean Succar Kuri, is now under custody in Arizona, awaiting extradition.

Cacho mentioned Nacif in the book as a friend of Succar's who is helping to finance his legal defense. In retaliation, Nacif arranged to have Lydia Cacho arrested, beaten and raped through a series of political favors - including a promise to deliver two bottles of cognac, allegedly code for two underage girls, to the governor of Puebla, Mario Marin. Puebla state police officers grabbed Cacho from her office in Cancun on December 16, 2005 on criminal charges of "defamation" and "calumny" against Nacif and drove her twenty hours to prison in Puebla where she was saved from rape at the last minute by a female prison guard. The recorded phones calls took place on the same day.

The transcribed conversations between Nacif and Marin read like the draft of an over-zealous theater script to portray one of the principal tenets of the Other Campaign: the irremediable corrosion of the political class in Mexico.

As the Other Campaign wound its way north through the states that border Mexico City on the east - Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo - it continued to draw attention to an Other Mexico, where, behind colonial archways and slick, new 24-hour convenience stores, one finds the everyday violence of sweatshop labor conditions, arbitrary detentions, rape, death threats, and assassinations.

In the Tehuacan Valley of Puebla, where Nacif and others run their maquilas, making everything from jeans to soccer balls, the women who work there told stories of harassment and exhaustion, humiliation and violence, all of which they endure for a little over a dollar a day.

A woman who has worked in a maquila making clothing for United States-based companies such as Levi Strauss and Gap told sub-comandante Marcos and the crowd of about one hundred gathered in a culture center in Altepexi, Puebla: "They make us work over eight hours. They make us work weekends. The slogan of the company is: you don't have personal lives, you don't have the right to get sick, and you should forget about your children if you are parents."

Maquilas - assembly plants where the machinery and raw materials for manufacturing are imported and the final products exported - represent the promise of the ideology known in Orwellian English as "free trade," the ideology embodied in the international trade treaties: North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Maquila workers would have steady employment, slowly rising wages, and the benefits of living in developed urban centers, preached the ideologues. But it didn't turn out that way.

Maquilas started along the United States-Mexico border in the 1960s, but exploded in number and spread to other parts of the country when NAFTA went into effect in 1994. The poor, rural countryside surrounding Mexico City became a hot spot for opening new maquilas. Small farm owners and farmworkers in indigenous land collectives were forced out of business and off their land by the constitutional reforms required to pass NAFTA, creating a new class of economically dispossessed indigenous and rural farmworkers. Millions of these NAFTA refugees crossed and continue to cross the border looking for work in construction, agriculture and the service industry in the US.

The maquilas set up in states like Puebla, Tlaxcala and Hidalgo, served as a kind of blockade to capture some of the traffic of migrants to the US-Mexico border. In the years after NAFTA went into effect, over a million Mexicans from southern, largely indigenous states like Chiapas, Oaxaca and Yucatan, and mostly women between the ages of 18 and 30, flooded to this maquila sector, which critics began to call the internal border.

While the profits of the maquila sector exploded after NAFTA, the wages and labor conditions of those who hunch over sewing machines repeating the same movement for hours on end, have gotten worse, much worse. When Mexican maquilas began losing contracts to Chinese sweatshops in the early 2000s, many maquila owners began to cut corners, working their employees to exhaustion, recycling them when they fell, and violently repressing all attempts to organize and demand better labor conditions.

Martin Barrios, a rock musician, poet and lawyer who provides legal counsel to maquila workers in the Tehuacan Valley, was beaten and thrown in jail on December 29, 2005, accused of bribery, just two weeks after Lydia Cacho was grabbed in her Cancun office. The "bribery" in question was the legal defense of 163 workers fired without cause the previous November 22 by a subcontractor for the maquila company Grupo Tarrant. Kamel Nacif is president of Grupo Tarrant.

A coalition of Puebla state human rights organizations called the Cuali Nemilistli Human Rights Network was in a meeting about the Lydia Cacho case when they received the call informing them that Barrios had been arrested. They pulled together to make calls, reach out to the press, plan marches, and put pressure on the governor. International organizations such the Maquila Solidarity Network mobilized US unions, journalists and intellectuals to put pressure on the US-based companies Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss that do business with Grupo Tarrant. The response was tremendous.

Marin and the Puebla state government held out for about two weeks before finally releasing Barrios on January 14. The subcontractor who ordered Barrios' arrest, Ricardo Gil Martinez, signed a "pardon" to "show his goodwill." Barrios, however, refused to co-sign, creating a glitch for the state government who wanted to dispel the pressure from human rights groups and the press. Barrios would not budge, demanding that he be exonerated of all charges. In the end, without a signed "pardon," the warden had to call prison guards to carry him out of the prison compound.

On February 12, two days before La Jornada published the transcribed phone conversations between Nacif and Puebla governor, Mario Marin, sub-comandante Marcos and Martin Barrios stood together before a crowd of a thousand people in Altepexi. Soon after Marcos spoke, a man approached Martin Barrios' brother in the crowd and warned him that Martin "now has a price on his head."

This is the world behind the label. This the world of promise sanctioned by men and women who have never felt hunger, been tossed in jail, or known the threat of a hired hit man. Dehumanizing work and miserable wages for those who keep quiet, and jail, rape, or assassination for those who speak out against abuses. Sometimes the violence breaks into national news such as the crimes against Martin Barrios and Lydia Cacho but the everyday violence is mostly lost behind the advertisements of the young and thin clad in tight jeans.

The day that La Jornada published the transcripts of the conversations planning Lydia Cacho's arrest and rape, just two days after giving testimony in Altepexi, and learning that he has a "price on his head," Martin Barrios stood on the stage in downtown Puebla, facing a crowd of two thousand, and called for trials against governor Mario Marin and the cats of characters a judge, a journalist, several police officers and business people implicated in the scandal.

Barrios has neither kept quiet nor softened his critique.

In an interview with Radio Sabotaje, Barrios said that the maquila sector represents a system that tries to eliminate indigenous people by forcing them off their land into bedroom communities for the maquilas where they lose their language and communal forms of governance, where their family and social ties are broken.

"The maquila becomes a politics of genocide against indigenous people," he said. "How, if no one is throwing bombs? Well, it is an economic bomb."

Link to complete coverage of Kamel/Marin scandal in La Jornada:

Link to Maquila Solidarity Network's Action Alert for the safety of Martin Barrios: