Warning: This Tomato May Contain Blood, Sweat, And Tears

by Dish Staff

Reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti spent a year and a half investigating the awful conditions under which farm workers in Mexico labor to bring fresh produce to the American market. The first installment of their massive four-part exposé in the LA Times outlines the numerous human rights violations they discovered and calls out major US retail and restaurant chains, including Walmart and Subway, for buying produce from the offending farms:

At the mega-farms that supply major American retailers, child labor has been largely eradicated. But on many small and mid-sized farms, children still work the fields, picking chiles, tomatillos and other produce, some of which makes its way to the U.S. through middlemen. About 100,000 children younger than 14 pick crops for pay, according to the Mexican government’s most recent estimate. During The Times’ 18-month investigation, a reporter and a photographer traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions at farm labor camps and interviewing hundreds of workers. At half the 30 camps they visited, laborers were in effect prevented from leaving because their wages were being withheld or they owed money to the company store, or both. …

The practice of withholding wages, although barred by Mexican law, persists, especially for workers recruited from indigenous areas, according to government officials and a 2010 report by the federal Secretariat of Social Development. These laborers typically work under three-month contracts and are not paid until the end. The law says they must be paid weekly. The Times visited five big export farms where wages were being withheld. Each employed hundreds of workers. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, bought produce directly or through middlemen from at least three of those farms, The Times found.

Part 2 focuses on one particularly Dickensian labor camp, where those too sick to work were reportedly denied food and medical care, and where asking for a few extra tortillas for her children could earn a worker a beating. Tom Philpott stresses how heavily Americans rely on Mexican farms for our cheap and abundant fruits and veggies:

The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we’re only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can’t be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

These revelations, Erik Loomis argues, strengthen the case for an international legal framework to hold American companies accountable for doing business with human rights abusers:

As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell. This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue.

A Massacre In Mexico, Ctd

Protest to Demand Justice for The 43 Missing Students

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo follows up on the 43 Mexican students who disappeared in late September in the southwestern state of Guerrero:

Authorities believe the police delivered the students to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of the town, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were later arrested and charged with ordering the police to capture the students out of fear that they would cause a disturbance. Three of the gang members confessed this week to murdering the students, burning them, and throwing the remains in plastic bags in a nearby river and garbage dump. The remains are so badly charred that local forensics investigators haven’t been able to confirm their identities. An outside commission from Argentina had to be called to perform further tests.

This is not the first, biggest, or most gruesome mass disappearance during Mexico’s past eight years of brutal drug violence. More than 106,000 have died in what government data term “executions,” “confrontations,” and “homicide-aggressions” since former President Felipe Calderon informally declared his war on drugs in 2006. But the tragedy of Ayotzinapa is different. Rarely has the collusion between local authorities and the cartels been so obvious and the consequences so dire.

The disappearances, the insidious corruption they revealed, and the Mexican authorities’ failure to locate the students’ remains despite uncovering one mass grave after another have sparked protests throughout the country, as citizens demand answers and accountability from president Enrique Peña Nieto and his government. Laura Carlsen focuses on how these protests relate to Mexico’s left-wing activist movement, with which the murdered students were associated:

While the demonstrators seek justice for the 43 students, what’s also driving them is a deep-seated anger at the Peña Nieto administration. The 16 rural teachers’ colleges embody that clash of cultures. No matter what fallout results from Ayotzinapa, the ongoing demonstrations have revealed the vast gulf between Mexico’s radical grassroots and its government. …

With public pressure rising and the protests showing no sign of abating, the Ayotzinapa case will almost certainly continue to ensnare government officials — the only question is how far up the chain. The Guerrero state governor, Angel Aguirre, was the first political leader forced to resign as a result of the crisis on Oct. 23; some are calling for the resignation of Peña Nieto and [Attorney General Jesus] Murillo. “This is the bad old Mexico, where local officials are inept, corrupt or in cahoots with organized crime; where life is cheap and justice elusive,” the Financial Times warned on Oct. 28 — a far cry from the modern, business-friendly image Peña Nieto has worked so hard to project.

José Cárdenas criticizes Peña Nieto’s “fitful approach to endemic security issues”:

What Guerrero puts into bold relief is the huge chasm between security efforts at the federal level, where security forces have been reshuffled and consolidated, and local levels, where weak and frequently corrupt state and municipal institutions have proved almost helpless against the armed capability and audacity of the large criminal groups, who have successfully infiltrated those same institutions and forces. Guerrero should be a watershed moment for Mexico, convincing Mexico City elites that the security situation is not a distraction from the economic agenda, but instead that dismantling the operations of criminal enterprises is indispensable to their nations’ stability and prosperity. Clearly, ordinary citizens are finding the levels of criminal violence unbearable and are losing patience with government strategies.

Anabel Hernández is less charitable:

Since Peña Nieto came to power, there have been grave regressions in Mexico, one of which is the abhorrence of transparency and public accountability, a move that was led by the presidential office and replicated by other governmental institutions. What else can be expected of this soiled government? In recent months, the military and the attorney general have presented false reports regarding crimes. Official information shows that in 2006 the number of criminal complaints not investigated by the federal government amounted to 24,000; in 2013, the number was 63,000. In Peña Nieto’s administration, law enforcement has become increasingly slow and pathetic.

(In Mexico City, Mexico on November 16, 2014 a protester holds a sign reading “Mexico is a grave” during a demonstration against Mexico’s government. By Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

ISIS On The Rio Grande?

Musa al-Gharbi argues that Mexico’s drug cartels are in every last respect more violent and dangerous than the Islamic State, from their body count (16,000 killed last year) to their use of child soldiers, kidnapping, torture, rape, and slavery:

Some may argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat than ISIL because ISIL is unified around an ideology, which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is not true.

A good deal of the cartels’ violence is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion, which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology. One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name evokes religious warfare), even boasts about its leader’s death and resurrection. When cartel members are killed, they are buried in lavish mausoleums, regarded as martyrs and commemorated in popular songs glorifying their exploits in all their brutality. Many of their members view the “martyrs” as heroes who died resisting an international order that exploits Latin America and fighting the feckless governments that enable it. The cartels see their role as compensating for state failures in governance. The narco gospel, which derives from Catholicism, is swiftly making inroads in the United States and Central America.

In short, the cartels’ ideological disposition is no less pronounced than ISIL’s, if not worse.

A Massacre In Mexico

Mexican Federal Forces Takes Over Security In Iguala and Tixla

Nick Miroff reports on the aftermath of a horrifying mass disappearance in Iguala, where “43 student teachers appear to have been rounded up after a day of protests, then marched into the hills and apparently massacred by local police and gang members, who prosecutors say control the city and its officials.” The discovery of at least 28 bodies, “so butchered and burned that Mexican authorities say it could take two months for DNA testing to determine if they’re the missing students”, has sparked protests throughout the country:

Iguala — in one of Mexico’s poorest and most troubled states, Guerrero — is the place where the country’s radical protest traditions have collided tragically with a new reality of gangster-run local governments. It’s not to say that local police wouldn’t have roughed up protesters, or possibly worse, in the past. But in Iguala, where prosecutors say police act under the orders of the gangsters, there was no restraint. Where crime bosses rule — the local capo goes by the nickname “El Chucky” — there was apparently no patience for pesky protesters and other such democratic nuisances. What has been so shocking to Mexicans is that the traffickers would treat them just as any other criminal rivals. One grisly image circulating social media shows a dead student whose face has been removed.

Claudia Romero stresses that this was not an isolated incident:

[T]he state of Guerrero is only one of several Mexican states where organized crime is fighting a turf war. The government of Iguala, moreover, is not Mexico’s only bureaucracy paralyzed by corruption. Police brutality is nothing unique to this case, either. Murders, disappearances, torture—these are weapons law enforcement across Mexico has turned on peaceful protesters. Ayotzinapa calls to mind other similar cases, including; Aguas Blancas, Acteal, and Tlataya, where corrupt police in league with the mafia have effectively criminalized social protests.

“It’s not always clear,” Kathy Gilsinan adds, “whether the local government is working for the drug cartels, or the other way around”:

InSight Crime’s David Gagne suggested on Thursday that Guerreros Unidos was likely “acting as ‘muscle’ for corrupt local officials,” since the cartel itself had little incentive to target the students. “Oftentimes criminal groups can take actions that authorities cannot,” InSight Crime’s co-director Steven Dudley told me. As to who exactly is working for whom in Mexico’s criminal-political nexus, Dudley said, “The short answer is, we don’t know. And the longer answer is, it changes all the time.”

Leon Krauze blames President Enrique Peña Nieto for failing to address Mexico’s serious corruption problem:

In lockstep with his party’s long held tradition, Peña Nieto has mostly turned a blind eye to numerous allegations of corruption at both the municipal and the state level. In the months before the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students, Jose Luis Abarca, the allegedly corrupt mayor of Iguala, had numerous and serious complaints filed against him. Federal authorities merely stood by. Now, the man is on the run, along with his chief of police. I’d be surprised if they’re heard from again and amazed if they’re ever prosecuted and sent to jail.

The US, Carimah Townes argues, doesn’t have clean hands here either:

Though Mexico is well-known for government corruption and systemic violence, the U.S. cannot be absolved of its involvement. The U.S. has contributed billions in financial aid to Mexico’s military under the Merida Initiative, with very little oversight. Indeed, due to concern over the U.S.-Mexico partnership and little knowledge of how the money is actually spent, Amnesty International stated, “In August [2012], despite the failure of Mexican authorities to meet human rights conditions set by the US Congress as part of the Merida initiative, the US State Department recommended that Congress release the 15% of funds subject to the conditions.” The Washington Office on Latin America, also attributes the overall militarization of Mexico’s public security to a U.S.-backed remodel, under which law enforcement officials are military-trained.

(Photo: Abandoned clothing is seen near clandestine graves in the outskirts of Iguala on October 13, 2014 in Iguala, Mexico. Mexican authorities found four more graves containing human remains near Iguala where 43 students went missing after a confrontation with local police that left 6 dead last September 26. By Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)