Thursday, July 1, 2010

Working Class Under the Gun: Mexico’s Other War

A shorter version of this article appears in the current issue of Left Turn magazine, which is on newsstands now, or can be purchased online.

by Kristin Bricker 

Anyone who saw the police strapping on protective gear on October 10, 2009, probably thought they were preparing to battle organized crime.  That night, six thousand militarized federal police deployed to Mexico City and four surrounding states. But they weren’t there to take down a drug cartel. Their orders were to bust the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, the SME.

Without warning, the police stormed government-owned power plants and substations and ordered all of the workers out at gunpoint.  No pink slip, just the barrel of a gun—and instantly 44,000 workers found themselves jobless.  Another 16,000 retirees saw their pensions disappear overnight.  In one hour, President Felipe Calderon fired every member of the SME, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful unions.

The move sent chills down the spine of every union worker in the country. Guadalupe Cervantes from the San Luis Potosi Independent Union of State Government Workers asked, “If the government can do something like this to the SME, what will it do to the rest of the unions?”

Calderon told the press that the government would provide the electrical workers with “assistance and training to find other jobs.”  The President conveniently forgot that Mexico is currently experiencing what is arguably the worst employment crisis in the nation’s history.  Laid-off electricians will have to get in line behind the millions of people who are already unemployed or severely underemployed.

Rising Prices

As if the lack of gainful employment weren’t enough, prices of basic necessities have skyrocketed during Calderon’s term.  Since Calderon took office on December 1, 2006, the price of the canasta básica (the government’s official measure of the cost of feeding a family of five for one day) has risen 93%.

Experts blame food prices’ sharp increase on two factors: food scarcity and rising gasoline prices.

The federal government owns Mexico’s petroleum industry, as decreed by the constitution.  Calderon has repeatedly increased the price of gas throughout his term in order to make up for budget shortfalls caused by the global economic crisis and the drug war.  Higher gas prices mean that the cost of transportation and petroleum-based chemical fertilizers also increase, which translate into higher food prices.

Food prices are also rising because successive Mexican presidents have led Mexico down a path of neo-liberal globalization.  Government policies are intentionally converting Mexico’s traditional peasant agriculture, which produces food for auto-consumption and domestic consumption, into industrial agriculture that produces for the global market.  Monoculture is replacing the milpas, a peasant farming method in which several crops are mixed together in a single field. Following Hurricanes Stan and Wilma, for example, the Chiapas government offered economic incentives to peasants who converted their destroyed milpas into African palm plantations. 

Some peasants have stopped working in agriculture altogether.  Former President Carlos Salinas’ reform of the Mexican Constitution’s Article 27 made it legal to sell ejidos (communal peasant land) and use them as collateral for loans.  Prior to the reform, ejidos belonged to the community and could only be inherited.  The reform of Article 27 was a prerequisite for Mexico’s entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

NAFTA dealt a double blow to Mexico’s peasant farmers.  It flooded Mexico with subsidized corn and other agricultural products from the United States, which destroyed the domestic market.  Farmers, faced with cheap, imported, genetically modified competition, struggled to make ends meet.  When they could no longer compete, they lost their land through sales and foreclosures, both made possible by the reform of Article 27. 

The result is that Mexican farmland is no longer producing enough food for domestic consumption.  It produces eucalyptus for wood pulp, African palm and soy for biofuels, and grain for livestock—all destined for the international market.  In turn, Mexico is now dependent on imported food, regardless of what it might cost.

Thanks in large part to NAFTA, Mexico now sends approximately 80% of its exports to the United States.  Exports constitute approximately 30% of Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP).  When the US economy crashed and its effects rippled across the globe, demand for Mexico’s exports dropped, causing its GDP to plunge 6.5% in 2009. 

With the economy shrinking and the country in the middle of an expensive war, Calderon had to come up with money for the federal budget somehow.  In 2009, while many federal social and development experienced budget cuts, drug war spending increased.  In 2010, with the country experiencing a full-blown economic crisis, Calderon increased drug war funding yet again.  This year he expects to add 12,347 drug warriors to the military, Federal Police, and intelligence agencies.  He funded these new positions by laying off 10,000 civilian government workers.

In addition to massive layoffs, Calderon funded his 2010 budget by raising taxes.  The new higher tax covers a range of goods and services, including all imported goods.  The higher rate taxes prices that were already inflated due to years of neo-liberal economic restructuring.

Government Neglect

Valle de Chalco is a working class town located along a major highway just outside of Mexico City.  Many residents either commute to work in Mexico City or make a living in the informal economy, working in the local flea market or in workshops located in their homes.

The town was already feeling the effects of the economic crisis: the rising cost of living, stagnant wages, and layoffs mean that customers have less money to spend.  But then things got much worse.

This past February, the Mexico City metropolitan area experienced unseasonable rains during what is generally the dry season.  It rained for a week, swelling local streams.

Valle de Chalco is located next to the La Compania canal, which used to be a river.  As the government authorized and funded new housing projects upstream, the amount of runoff, raw sewage, and industrial waste that was dumped into the river steadily increased.  About twenty years ago, in order to accommodate rising water levels, the government began to pile sandbags and dirt along the riverbanks, turning the polluted river into a makeshift black water canal. 

“Any time you drive down that highway [next to the canal] you see a bulldozer putting more and more dirt around the canal,” says Chalco resident Aurura Garcia Ruiz.

The canal, despite its haphazard construction, is equipped with floodgates and sump pumps—both of which require electricity in order to function.


The SME had a team of electricians that worked around the clock to repair potentially dangerous electrical outages, such as those that effect sump pumps and floodgates.  When Calderon shut down the government-owned company where they worked, Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC), he promised the public that 8,000 people could do the work that 44,000 SME members used to do.

Calderon turned LyFC’s grid and infrastructure over to the other government-owned electric company, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).  The union that represents CFE workers is a charro union—political parties control its leaders, and the union is pro-government and docile.

When the CFE took control of LyFC’s infrastructure, it subcontracted 200 workers to maintain the grid. The majority of those workers sleep in cots in a 10-meter by 20-meter tent that is reminiscent of an emergency storm shelter.  The 200 workers share six cold-water showers and twelve latrines.  

The SME's Secretary of the Interior, Humberto Montes de Oca, says the subcontractors are untrained and working under dangerous conditions.  He says that many of them have been injured or killed on the job: he cited one man who was reportedly electrocuted and another who fell from a tower. "This is how the government wants to see all of us workers,” he said. “With miserable paychecks, in a tragic situation, without benefits, without a collective contract, and without a union."

Even with the help of 200 cheap, expendable subcontractors, it appears as though—contrary to what Calderon claims—8,000 CFE workers can’t maintain the grid that 44,000 SME members had maintained for over 100 years.  Frequent and prolonged power outages have plagued the former LyFC grid ever since Calderon’s middle-of-the-night shotgun layoffs last October.

Unnatural Disaster

On February 3 and 4 during heavy unseasonable rains, the SME documented service interruptions that amounted to a “perfect storm” over the southern Mexico City metropolitan area.  Four electrical substations that serve that area experienced “disturbances,” knocking out the power to southern Mexico City’s drain system, flood gates, and two sump pumps, one of which served the La Compania canal in Valle de Chalco. 

The floodwaters began to rise in southern Mexico City as the rain filled the streets and rivers.  With the sump pumps and floodgates inoperable, the water filled La Compania canal, pushing against its makeshift walls until they burst on February 5.

When the canal wall burst in front of Valle de Chalco, raw sewage and industrial runoff flooded the highway, killing five motorists. 

“We blocked the street with sandbags,” recounts Luisa Lopez Santos. “We saw that the water reached a certain point and stopped rising, so we figured, 'Well, that's as high as it'll get, just like ten years ago.'” 

However, when Valle de Chalco flooded ten years ago, the drainage system and sump pumps were operational. 

“To our surprise,” says Lopez Santos, “the water started coming up out of the drains, the foundations of the houses, in the gardens...water started gushing out from everywhere.”

The SME documented electrical failures in the area throughout the week, which caused the floodwaters to retreat much slower than normal.  Valle de Chalco was under raw sewage for thirteen days.  In some areas, the dirty water filled houses’ entire first floors.

Chalco residents went at least 15 days without work.  Many of those who commuted to Mexico City for work lost their jobs for failure to show. “People couldn't get to work,” says Garcia Ruiz.  “The street was full of water and cars and buses."

Those who work in Chalco saw their livelihoods washed away along with their homes.  Everyone is finding it difficult to pick up the pieces. 

“We sell in the flea market, and our sales have dropped a lot,” says Lopez Santos.  “People who before bought a half kilo of peppers are now buying a quarter kilo because they don't have work.”

Flood survivors criticize the government’s response to the flood.  The government gave MX$20,000 ($1,640 USD) to each family affected by the flood, regardless of the damage sustained to their homes or how many people are in each family.  Residents who lost their home-based businesses received no extra aid.  Rather than disinfecting homes and helping families remove their belongings that had been soaking in raw sewage for over two weeks, teams of government workers merely pushed the “mud” out of houses with brooms and gave every family a bucket of paint and a bottle of bleach. 

A government aid worker who spoke to Left Turn on condition of anonymity says that many families aren’t receiving the little aid they are entitled to: “A lot of property owners are taking advantage to collect the aid that is owed to their renters.”

Furthermore, the aid worker says, “We have to determine the number of families in a building by the number of kitchens.”  Many poor Mexican families rent one room for their entire family and share a kitchen with other renters.  This means that five poor families who rent rooms in a building with a shared kitchen split $20,000 in aid. 

The $20,000 the government gave flood victims came in the form of vouchers that they could only use in select chain stores, making it impossible to shop around for the best price or buy used.  This means that flood victims can’t stretch the $20,000 vouchers as far as they could stretch cash. “There's a lot of people who, when they got their vouchers and figured out that they could only use them to buy a few things, decided to wash their beds,” says Garcia Ruiz.

Chalco residents are feeling the consequences of sleeping on dirty beds in dirty houses.  They have skin infections, respiratory infections, eye infections, sore throats, allergies, infected lesions: all the result of living in and breathing the filth and dust that the raw sewage left in their homes and neighborhoods. But the government’s medical teams came and left immediately following the flood, and they don’t plan to return.  The government also never sent psychologists to help residents through shock and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Coordinadora Valle de Chalco, a local coalition that is part of the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, has stepped up to fill the gap left by the government’s criminal neglect. Through community work, they are proving that organized people can meet their own needs better than the government can. 

On February 5, when the floodwaters first began to rise, the Coordinadora mobilized to help residents move their belongings to the second floor of their homes.   They helped neighbors pile sandbags in the streets in an attempt to stop the floodwaters’ advance. 

“We initially provided human labor for the most part,” explains Coordinadora member Rafael Garfias. “Later, donations of food and money began to arrive from the Other Campaign in Mexico City and Mexico State, so we started to distribute that as well. We started to videotape and take photos so that people on the outside would know what was happening here.  Two days after the flooding, the government began to say that everything was under control, that people were fine, that no one should worry.  So we began to issue communiqués about the military and police presence.  There were no aid workers.  They sent the military.  The Navy.  The police… this was their first response.”

When the floodwaters retreated, the Coordinadora organized an autonomous needs assessment to determine its response to the disaster.  This set them apart from the political parties and factions who wanted to capitalize on the disaster.  “Right now we’re not interesting in shutting down highways or occupying the town hall,” argues Garfias.  “The Other Campaign’s slogan, ‘From below and to the left,’ is not empty rhetoric.  It means that if the government doesn’t care about us, we have an urgent task at hand.  We need to help our people get through the shock, be there with them.  If they decide to shut down a road, we’ll be there with them.  But we asked, ‘What do you want?  What do you need? How can we help?’ And they told us, ‘We need medical attention.  We need for the kids to get past their trauma.’”

So, instead of a protest, the Coordinadora organized a fair in the church.  Church ladies distributed donated food and clothing while doctors from the Other Campaign provided free exams and medicine.  A hairdresser donated her labor and cut kids’ hair while musicians sang.  Psychologists from the Other Campaign will visit the community soon. 

“The path is clear: from below and to the left,” says Garfias.  “What’s important now is the community work that will give us the strength to begin bigger projects and keep organizing."


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