No Work Here

The Baltimore Sun

Cerro de las Tablas, Mexico -- The lemons in this rural village could have been sold in an American superstore. Instead, they fell to the earth and rotted before they could be picked.

In this small pueblo perched on the Pacific coast in southern Mexico, the roads are made of dirt and a toilet is a hole in the ground. The region is lush and green. The fertile land is ideal for growing lemon and lime trees. It seems too beautiful to be so poor.

But the closest city - Acapulco - is four hours away. Transporting the produce to a place where it can be sold is prohibitively expensive, and the lemons aren't worth much anyway. A large bag of them sells for only 30 pesos, or $3. It's not enough to live on, so the men who would pick the lemons have left.

Cerro de las Tablas' troubles are shared by communities across Mexico, where desperation has taken hold. Jobs in agriculture are down 25 percent in the last decade, grain and coffee prices have nosedived, manufacturing has shifted to Asian countries such as China, and an entire generation has fled what it sees as hopeless circumstances.

The promise of a better life north of the border has long drawn illegal immigrants from Mexico to the United States. But in recent years, that steady stream has become a torrent as free trade agreements and global competition have wiped out hundreds of thousands of jobs on farms and in factories here.

It was good news, then, when a supplier for Wal-Mart came to Cerro de las Tablas last year and said he wanted to buy the town's lemons - bringing jobs and money to a place that lacked both - but only if a minimum quantity of the fruit could be guaranteed for delivery. Otherwise, the deal would not be cost-effective.

But Cerro de las Tablas, emptied out like so many rural towns by an exodus to big cities and the United States, could not meet the numbers. The deal fell through. The young men who might have done the work are gone.

"There are almost no men here," says Eduardo Anorve Zapata, 45, who grew up in the town and whose 19-year-old son is among those who have left for the United States. Anorve says the only work available in the region involves caring for crops and livestock, which, when you can get it, pays about $6 a day.

To understand the wave of migrants leaving Mexico for the United States, go to their hometowns - places like Cerro de las Tablas on the coast or Zitacuaro in the central mountains or Tapachula in the south - and ask what they do for a living.

No hay trabajo aqui. The refrain comes from all corners. There is no work here.

When billionaire Ross Perot campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement, he famously warned of a "giant sucking sound" that would sweep the United States as jobs moved abroad. But more than a decade after the pact was signed, the most powerful negative impact has been in Mexico.

Tariffs were cut on agricultural products, and American farmers - with their advanced technology, better irrigation and greater efficiency - sold corn in Mexico at prices below what it cost Mexican farmers to grow. The American advantages were overwhelming, and without tariff protection, the Mexican farmers didn't stand a chance.

"Gradually, each of the products that was produced by farmers in Mexico was exposed to competition from the U.S., and it was fierce," says Sandra Polaski, a former U.S. State Department official who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It's the difference between modern, highly capitalized agriculture in the U.S. versus subsistence farming - rain-fed, without irrigation - in Mexico."

Alejandro Salgado Flores, a farmer in central Mexico, knows the struggle well. He has a few acres on the side of a mountain, where he grows corn and raises cattle, trying to earn enough to support his wife and 10 children. He works the land with an ancient plow because he can't afford the machinery he needs.

He is angry at his government for not helping him.

"Everything is because of the government. It destroys us. It doesn't take care of us," says Salgado Flores, 48, a trim, proud man who feels his country has failed him. "What I have is what I have earned with my sweat."

Six tons of corn, which he cannot sell for profit, are stacked high in a 25-foot-high wooden silo on his property. He uses the corn to feed his cattle, hoping they will bring him money. He has been to the United States three times to work as a mason, and he made as much as $12 an hour. He came home each time. He missed his family.

Now he works in town when he can. He tries to find jobs on bigger farms, but they too are squeezed by rising competition and falling prices. It gets harder each year: Real wages in Mexico are lower than when NAFTA took effect in 1994, and 31 percent of Mexicans live in poverty, the same proportion as in the late 1970s.

"We always intended to give our children more than we had," Salgado Flores says, no longer sure if that is possible. "We have no resources. We are poorer than we used to be."

He thinks he will have to return to the United States to find decent work. Across Mexico, thousands of other men have come to the same conclusion.

Not all are subsistence farmers. Many once worked in factories that produced washing machines, refrigerators and other durable goods. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Mexico's growing industries provided jobs for thousands of unskilled workers.

"These were like auto plant jobs in the U.S. in the Sixties - they weren't easy or glamorous, but you made a very good living compared to your level of skill," says Polaski of the Carnegie Endowment. But when free trade pacts, including NAFTA, brought down the tariffs that had been slapped on appliances entering Mexico, the factories couldn't survive.

The goods produced for domestic distribution faced competition from abroad, and the products that Mexico once exported were undercut by cheaper producers elsewhere. In 2003, China displaced Mexico as the second-largest exporter to the United States (after Japan). Many of China's cheap goods are also coming to Mexico.

"Wal-Mart is now the biggest retail distributor in Mexico, and Wal-Mart tends to buy globally in bulk and distribute to all its stores," Polaski says. "So pans, dishes, plastic shoes - they come from wherever Wal-Mart can get them cheapest in the world."

Mexico may soon face even more competition closer to home. The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which takes effect over the next decade, could encourage Mexican industrialists to move production to neighboring Latin countries where labor is cheaper.

Those countries are also poorer than Mexico, and they continue to send thousands northward to the United States. In that flow this spring was Carlos Castillo Rodriguez, a 28-year-old Honduran who said his family was so destitute his only option was to leave.

"We have nothing," he says, sitting in the courtyard of a migrant shelter in Tapachula, on the Mexico-Guatemala border. He is the oldest of eight, and he has two children. He has been to the United States twice before in attempts to support them. He worked in an factory making onion rings in Ohio ("We cried all day," he said) before being arrested and sent home. Another time he got as far as the U.S. border but turned around, afraid of another arrest.

This time he vows to cross.

"I will stay alive," Castillo says. "If I do anything, I do it for them, for my wife and children, for all my family."

He was resting, just for a day, at a migrant shelter run by the Rev. Flor Maria Rigoni, an Italian priest who has worked with migrants in Mexico for two decades. When he started, in Tijuana in 1985, the average age of the migrants was 30. Now, in a sign of their desperation, it's 21.

"The young people can't find work, so they go," he says, even though they know the risks - death by exposure or dehydration, sexual assaults, robberies. "They tell me, 'I prefer to die crossing a border and walking toward another horizon.'"

Every night in the Arizona desert, a thousand or more immigrants climb fences or pass through holes cut in barbed wire to enter the United States illegally. They come despite the additional U.S. agents who have been hired to fortify the 1,951-mile border and the technology that keeps constant watch.

The U.S. Border Patrol made 1.1 million apprehensions last year - the majority of them men. But those are just the ones who are caught. Countless others slip through, ranging far beyond traditional migration patterns that had been established decades earlier.

From 1942 to 1964, the bracero program allowed Mexicans to temporarily work on farms and ranches in the United States. It drew migrants from regions with poor soil and few prospects. And even after the program ended, migrants followed the same well-worn paths to states like California, Arizona and Texas.

But more recently, Mexicans have been leaving their homes throughout the country, even in areas with rich soil such as Chiapas, and fanning out across the United States in pursuit of work. In the town of Belisario Dominguez on a recent weekend, all the market stalls were staffed by women. Their husbands and sons have left, and they say it's hard to find men to work.

"Frankly, it's a sad thing," says Delfina Monson Tovar, 70, who has lived in the town her entire life and runs a dusty stationery store. "There are no young people here."

On weekends in Belisario Dominguez, the women line up at telephone shops to call the relatives in the United States. Most can only afford to call once or twice a month. In small plywood booths in the crowded phone shop, they hear stories of how hard it is to find work in the United States, but they tell their men: Don't come back. There is nothing here.

Elissame Verdugo Morales, 30, just spoke to her husband in Florida and says he hasn't worked in two weeks because businesses are more strict about checking documentation. She carries their 3-year-old son, Jose Manuel, on her hip, and says the boy does not remember his father.

Some say the children in town have become more aggressive and developed behavioral problems without fathers around. The family structure is weakened, and women worry their husbands will find new wives and start new families in the United States.

But Verdugo Morales supported her husband's decision to leave a few years ago, just after they got married. She does not have a job herself and gets by on the money her husband sends home - a small fraction of the more than $16 billion in remittances sent back home to Mexico each year from the United States.

"If he comes home," Verdugo Morales says of her husband, "I want there to be something for him here. Now there is nothing."

The town's economy had been based on coffee production. But when prices plunged early in this decade, many coffee plantations shut down and the men had nowhere to turn. In 1995, prices peaked at $1.71 a pound. By 2001, the price had fallen to 47 cents.

Even now, with prices around $1 a pound, the industry is still producing nearly a billion pounds more coffee than can be sold. But while the coffee market has recovered to some degree, the men of Belisario Dominguez have not returned.

"When the time of the peak coffee season comes," says Monson Tovar, "it's difficult to find people because the people who used to pick coffee are not picking coffee anymore."

The United States is building more high-tech fences and hiring an army of patrol agents, but immigration experts say it will take more than a heavily fortified border to stem the northward flood. America must weigh the impact of NAFTA and other trade pacts on its Latin neighbors and provide encouragement and meaningful assistance to the Mexican government to develop a more competitive economy that will create more jobs.

"If you want to slow migration down, you have to look at what's going on behind the border, on the Mexico side," Polaski says. "People are pushed out by poverty and pulled by job opportunities. You can work on both ends of that equation."

Such is the mission of Starbucks' Project Chiapas, a program to help coffee growers in Mexico refine their product, preserve the environment and improve their way of life. The high-altitude, shade-grown coffee beans in Chiapas have always had great potential but were degraded by poor cultivation practices.

In 1998, for instance, the Seattle-based coffee retailing giant bought only one container (or 38,000 pounds) of coffee from Chiapas because the quality was so inconsistent. But a partnership with USAID and Washington-based Conservation International provided growers with concrete washing tanks, to wash the coffee cherries of mucilage before transport, and concrete drying patios to replace the soil that had been used. Fences were put up to keep out chickens and pigs.

"These are simple infrastructure things that can happen at a farm level," says Dennis Macray, director of business practices for Starbucks.

The result: Last year Starbucks bought nearly 50 containers (or 1.9 million pounds) of coffee from Chiapas at above-market rates: $1.42 per pound versus the market price of $1.04.

The company is working with 800 small farmers, and since the program's inception in 1998 the farmers have seen a 40 percent increase in their incomes even while a worldwide surplus of coffee has forced prices down.

In Cerro de las Tablas, after the deal with Wal-Mart fell through, the town began talking to other lemon growers in the region about forming a co-op. Residents are also working to improve the quality and appearance of their lemons, so they can be sold at higher prices to supermarkets and not just for the food industry.

They are hopeful an arrangement can be worked out. Until then, they wait.

On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen men sat on a dirt porch drinking Coronas. Daniel Zapata Bacho, 48, said that six of his 11 children have left for the United States to work in factories or construction. He knows they are better off, though he doesn't hear from them much.

"The oldest hasn't returned for 15 years," he said.

As the men were speaking, the earth began to shake. Several of them jumped from their plastic chairs and ran into the center of the road. After a minute, when the ground was still again, they returned to the porch, sat down and picked up their beers.

There was nothing else to do.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Stephen Kiehl traveled to Mexico on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University.

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