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Cover of Juarez book: man climbing over border fence

Juarez 3: Maquiladoras {format} {format} 7:57 Scott Carrier

Neighborhoods near the factories.

Broadcast: Jul 5 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Juarez: City on the Edge Subjects: Business, International, Hispanic, Labor

Profile: Maquiladoras of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

July 5, 2004 from Day to Day

MADELEINE BRAND, host: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city that shares a border with El Paso, Texas, is the land of the maquiladora. Although Tijuana may have more of the factories, Juarez has the highest number of maquiladora workers. Independent producer Scott Carrier went to a maquiladora in Juarez and visited the surrounding neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of factory)

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

This is an assembly plant, owned and operated by Delphi, the world's largest maker of auto parts. Used to be part of General Motors. It's a big open room, large enough to house a 747. Four hundred workers operating machines that drill holes, fuse wires, seal plastic, making turn signals and brake sensors for cars and light trucks. The place is clean and well-lit, air-conditioned, like a factory you'd expect to see in Ohio or Michigan, only this one is in Juarez, Mexico and here it's called a maquiladora.

There are a couple hundred maquiladoras like this one in Juarez, employing over 100,000 people. American, European and Japanese companies have located here because labor is cheap and the Mexican government has, for the past 40 years, allowed a free trade zone along the border. Materials are brought in from the United States, assembled into products in the maquiladoras, and then the products are exported back to the US with little or no tariffs. Over the years, millions of Mexicans have migrated from small farms in the south to come to work in the maquiladoras on the border.

Xochitl Diaz is communications manager for Delphi Mexico.

Ms. XOCHITL DIAZ (Communications Manager, Delphi Mexico): A lot of people come here in search of the American dream, you know? Being able to cross the border and going on to look for that American dream somewhere in the US. And a lot of people have to stay back. A lot of people prefer to stay here and the maquiladoras can provide employment without having to lose their culture, lose their--or go on to look--to work in an area--in a country where they don't speak the language there, they don't have the culture. You know, maquiladoras are clean, safe places where people can have a safe job. They provide opportunities for people who want to take them.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: The place that's not safe, however, is the place where the workers live. Much of Juarez is comprised of neighborhoods that look like scenes from a "Mad Max" movie, squatter settlements built on sand dunes where entire families live in 10-by-15 foot shacks made from wooden pallets covered with cardboard and tar paper, metal bars on the windows and doors. Gangs rob and steal and kill. Young girls disappear. Sometimes whole neighborhoods go up in flames. Many of the homes have no sewer connection. Many of the roads are not paved. For whatever reason, the city, state and federal governments have not been able to meet this challenge.

And then there's the problem of the low wages. The maquiladoras pay about $40 to $55 for a 48-hour workweek. that's about a dollar an hour, which is about twice the minimum wage. But living expenses along the border are nearly what they are in the US, and so a dollar an hour is a starvation wage. And now even this low wage is no longer competitive. People in China and Southeast Asia are working for a quarter an hour. Over the past three years, 30 percent of the border factories have moved overseas. A hundred plants closed in Juarez alone.

You could say that what Juarez is going through is just growing pains. In the past 10 years, economists say Mexico has brought in over $130 billion of foreign capital. A $1.3 billion trade deficit with the United States has become a $47 billion trade surplus with the United States. Overall, the Mexican economy has never been stronger. I asked Charles Bowden about these studies. He's written two books about Juarez, both critical of the maquiladora industry and free trade in general. I asked him why he thinks free trade in Mexico is so bad when the Mexican economy is doing so well.

Mr. CHARLES BOWDEN (Author): It's a lie. It's a lie. Good God, if it--why don't you ask the real question? If the economy's doubled or tripled, why are people poorer now than before that happened? I mean, yeah, what are you on, drugs? I mean, how can you triple an economy and by every indices of the Mexican government and our own, the people are worse off in Mexico than we were before we agreed to NAFTA. It's been 10 years. We're causing a flight to the United States as we destroy the countryside. Many of these small peasant farmers, can no longer compete. You go out there and they're ghost villages. Everybody's in Chicago or Los Angeles to stay alive.

No, it's--what's going on in Mexico now is the largest folk movement on Earth, but you're not seeing people coming up to pick apples for a summer job. What you're seeing is an exodus like in biblical terms. Mexico is collapsing and any sane person's going to get out, and they are. They're coming north to survive. You don't find 16-year-old girls with one-month-old babies walking through 50 miles of hot Southwestern American desert as a lark. And those kind of people are moving. They don't have any choice. If they stay where they are, they won't survive. This is a different world on the border now. That's part of the violence that's suddenly occurring because they're desperate to get out. They're trapped like rats.

(Soundbite of factory)

CARRIER: From inside the Delphi assembly plant, you can't see how bad things are outside. The workers here have new clothes, new shoes. Delphi has programs that help its employees buy their own homes, programs to help them finish their high school and even college education. The Delphi Corporation, however, can't solve Mexico's problems. It can't even raise its wages and still stay competitive in the world market. In the end, perhaps the most valuable thing that Delphi gives its workers is hope, even the false hope that their lives are getting better.

This is Scott Carrier.

BRAND: Scott's reports come to us from the independent radio producers organization You can hear the first two parts of the Juarez series by going to our Web site, And next week Scott talks to American teens crossing the Mexican border for cheap thrills on a carnival-like strip called Juarez Land(ph).

CARRIER: How come you guys come here to Juarez?

Unidentified Teen #1: Cheap to drink. And I'm not 21.

Unidentified Teen #2: My parents drank here 30 years ago. So I'll tell you that much.

Unidentified Teen #3: Sometimes before we come we pre-game it over in El Paso in the United States, you know, try to get a little beer before we leave. For us, being high school kids, you know, and sometimes college kids, especially in college, you have little money so it's a good way to, like, save some money, come have a good time with a bunch of your friends. The atmosphere is great. Drugs, you're about two minutes from anything you want right now. Speed...

Unidentified Teen #4: Am I incriminating myself right now?

Unidentified Teen #3: You can get any kind of pill you want.

Unidentified Teen #5: Five bundles for 30 bucks.

Unidentified Teen #4: And that's about it. LSD, acid--I refer to acid (unintelligible) around these parts.

Unidentified Teen #6: the front.

Unidentified Teen #7: Cocaine.

Unidentified Teen #8: It's just, once you're drunk, like, I don't know, it's quite the appeal.

BRAND: How a Mexican border town feeds America's drug habit, next, in the Ciudad Juarez series from Scott Carrier on DAY TO DAY.

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.