In 1987, a United States/Mexican presidential agreement was reached which required U.S.-owned plants along the Mexican border to return waste products to the U.S. for disposal. Following a four-month investigation, journalist Jane Juffer, an associate editor for the Pacific. News Service, reported that few are doing so.

The agreement is routinely violated by the majority of the maquiladora (twin plant program) plants. Instead of returning waste products to the U.S. for disposal, the plants have poured chemical wastes down the drains, dumped them in irrigation ditches, left them in the desert, burned them in city dumps, and turned them over to Mexican recycling plants that are not qualified to handle toxic wastes.

Maquiladoras are booming; there are now 1300 along the 2,000-mile border and experts say the number is growing at a 25% annual rate. The boom began with the 1982 peso devaluation which drove the average wages of a maquiladora worker below 50 cents an hour -- about one-third of what U.S. companies pay in Singapore and Hong Kong. Under provision of the maquiladora program, the factories import nearly all their raw materials and components into Mexico duty-free, assemble their goods, and export the near-finished products to the U.S., paying duty only on the value added during the assembly.

One of the many examples cited by Juffer is the discovery of hundreds of barrels of hazardous paint sludge dumped in the desert 60 miles northwest of Monterrey. The sludge was traced back to a General Motors subsidiary. GM blamed the contractor that was hired to dispose of the waste.

Health inspectors found no less than 100 types of toxic chemicals in the New River, a 75-mile waterway that originates in Baja California. It enters the U.S. at Calexico, California, and empties into the Salton Sea, a popular fishing and swimming site near Palm Springs. The wastes were directly traced to Mexicali, a border city with more than 100 maquiladoras.

Careless disposal procedures also endanger local residents. Chemical drums which were used to store highly toxic materials are frequently reclaimed by local citizens to be used as family water storage barrels. Many of the drums still have residues of chlorinated solvents so toxic that even small amounts can cause harm.

In yet another case, hydrofluoric acid fumes emitted by a plant partially owned by DuPont is said to have reduced crop yields in local farms and caused severe health problems for local residents, including blindness. For years after the plant opened in 1971, it had compensated farmers for cuts in crop yield but that came to a halt in 1984. The plant produces 100 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid and exports 95% of its products to the U.S. -- almost all of it to a DuPont subsidiary.

The U.S. companies failure to return waste products to the U.S. for disposal presents a difficult problem for Mexico. Maquiladoras now represent Mexico's second largest source of foreign currency and their economic clout is a powerful palliative for a toxic wasteland.


THE PROGRESSIVE, October 1988, "Dump at the Border: U.S. firms make a Mexican wasteland," by Jane Juffer, pp 24-29.