In a four part series, LA Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti find that thousands of laborers at Mexico’s mega-farms endure harsh conditions and exploitation while supplying produce for American consumers.
Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables
The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming “Product of Mexico.”
Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers.
American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.
These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.
But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm:
‘They treated us like slaves’
Scorpions and bedbugs. Constant hunger. No pay for months. Finally, a bold escape leads to a government raid, exposing deplorable conditions. But justice proves elusive.
Ricardo Martinez and Eugenia Santiago were desperate.
At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists.
Escape was tempting but risky. The compound was fenced with barbed wire and patrolled by bosses on all-terrain vehicles. If the couple got beyond the gates, local police could arrest them and bring them back. Then they would be stripped of their shoes.
Martinez, 28, and Santiago, 23, decided to chance it. Bioparques was one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, a supplier for Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains. But conditions at the company’s Bioparques 4 camp had become unbearable.
They left their backpacks behind to avoid suspicion and walked out the main gate. As they approached the highway, a car screeched up. Four camp bosses jumped out. One waved a stick at them.
“You’re trying to leave,” he said, after spotting a change of clothing in a plastic bag Martinez was carrying.
Company stores trap Mexican farmworkers in a
cycle of debt
The mom-and-pop monopolies sell to a captive clientele, post no prices and track purchases in dog-eared ledgers. At the end of the harvest, many workers head home owing money.
Reporting from Campo Isabeles, Mexico
The farmworkers lined up right after work, clutching crumpled pesos. The shelves before them were stacked high with staples: corn flour and beans, diapers and Mexican sweet bread.
Most weren’t buying, however.
Dionisia Bustamante handed 1,000 pesos, about $70, to Israel Gastelum, owner of the company store at Campo Isabeles.
She was short 2,000, but it was the best she could do. “We’re running out of vegetables to pick,” she explained.
A wiry man held out 400 pesos. “You still owe 500,” Gastelum said.
“How am I going to pay?” the laborer asked. “We’re not earning enough.”
In Mexico’s fields, children toil to harvest crops that
make it to American tables
An estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay. Alejandrina, 12, wanted to be a teacher. Instead, she became a nomadic laborer, following the pepper harvest from farm to farm.
Alejandrina Castillo swept back her long black hair and reached elbow-deep into the chile pepper plants. She palmed and plucked the fat serranos, dropping handful after tiny handful into a bucket.
The container filled rapidly. Alejandrina stopped well before the pepper pile reached the brim.
She was 12, and it was hard for her to lift a full 15-pound load.
One row over was her brother Fidel, 13, who couldn’t keep up with her. He was daydreaming as usual. Their 10-year-old cousin, Jesus, was trying harder but falling behind too.
Alejandrina looked in the distance for the food truck. It was almost noon, five hours since she had a tortilla for breakfast. The sky was cloudless. It would be another 90-degree day in the palm-lined coastal farmland of southern Sinaloa.
“I wish I was home with my baby brother,” she said.
LA Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti