'You're going to die anyway' Brownsville: In this U.S. shipbreaking capital on the Mexican border, where labor and life are cheap, scrapping thrives amid official indifference.

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS — BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- This dusty, dingy corner of South Texas is a near-perfect place to carry on a dirty job like ship scrapping.

Here along the Rio Grande, in a region that has the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line of any American metropolitan area, residents have had to contend in recent years with tick-borne fever, a high concentration of babies born with malformed brains and killer bees. It is one of the few places in the United States where leprosy has not been stamped out.


Brownsville, a city of 100,000, is home to garment factories, rail yards, oil-rig repair companies, used-clothing dealers. It lies just across the border from a cluster of "maquiladoras," assembly plants run by American corporations that are exempt from Mexican duties and have become notorious sources of pollution.

Here, said David Elizondo, a longshoreman who dreams of the day he might be able to organize the scrapyard workers, the politics are brazen, corruption is rife, and a few people have things comfortably in control - abetted by low voter registration, low turnout among those voters who are registered and a certain Mexican fatalism.


"People here say, 'You're going to die anyway,'" Elizondo said.

A businessman gets left alone in Brownsville. It's a long way across wide-open, flat scrubland to the rest of Texas. State environmental regulators don't find their way down from Austin very often. The official in charge of PCB enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency is based in Dallas, several hundred miles away, and went years without coming here. The two-man office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, responsible for all of South Texas, is a three-hour drive away, in Corpus Christi.

"There aren't a lot of people to bug you there," said Andrew A. Levy, a New York lawyer who has bought warships for demolition.

The port lies several miles outside town, along an artificial channel cut in from the Gulf of Mexico in 1934, a place where summer winds whip up huge sandstorms across the dry river delta. There, steel comes in as an old ship and it leaves as 2-foot-by-5-foot plates stacked in battered Mexican rail cars headed over the border, thanks to the exertions of immigrant laborers happy to have even low-wage jobs.

They come from little farms scattered across the Mexican countryside. They are willing and diligent workers, but unsophisticated, unaware of their rights and unable to speak English. Many in the scrapyards are working here legally. Many are not.

In the mornings, new arrivals stop in at the Oasis Cafe, on East Adams Street, next door to the Expreso Bus Station, where migrants from Monterrey and points farther south alight. The Oasis is the unofficial hiring hall for all the scrapyards in Brownsville.

Training here consists of watching the next guy. Precautions against asbestos or PCB exposure, or against fires or falls, are haphazard at best.

Pedro Rios, 65, a steel cutter for 23 years, said no one has ever talked to him about the health risks of the job. The men eat where they work, despite regulations requiring a separate lunchroom away from the fumes of burning lead paint.


The workers often lay a piece of painted steel plate on supports, put their tortillas on it, then heat it from beneath with their torches.

Another cutter, Orlando Saenz, shrugged off the hazards of ingesting lead. "All you have to do is eat a little chocolate," he said. "That'll keep you from getting lead poisoning."

The work force is uniformly Latino. Emilio Sanchez, from a prominent Mexican-American family, sees no puzzle in that. Sanchez owns the only cold-storage company in Brownsville equipped to handle the commercial shrimpers' catch, which gives him considerable clout in the port, and among his other business ventures he invests in merchant and Navy ships for scrap.

"The Hispanics are the best cutters, traditionally," he said. "It's the ethic. They're the best. We wouldn't use anyone else. I wouldn't do it any other way. It's not exploitation."

Rios scoffs at that. "The Hispanics can be abused. We have no choice," he said. "It's out of need we do this. I got this job because I don't know how to read or write. You could say this is a job for the dumb."

Elizondo, the union organizer, believes the shipbreaking industry flourishes here because of Washington's indifference to the Latino laborers of Brownsville.


"Why is the Navy dumping all these ships, this asbestos?" he asked. "Well, let's dump this on Brownsville. Let Jose take care of it."

Pub Date: 12/07/97