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I didn’t know that if the Mexican government tries to impose any environmental or safety standards on the maquiladoras that sprung up across the border after NAFTA, it is subject to be sued–by the American corporations who profit from them, I assume–in international courts.

That’s just one item I learned from reading Ken Midkiff’s account of his visit to hell:

A few years ago, I went to hell.   The hell I went to was brought about, so said my City of Matamoras aldermen guides, by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Lately, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, contenders for the Democratic nomination for President, have engaged in spirited debates about NAFTA.  Both have stated that the issue should be re-visited and that environmental and labor agreements should be part of the core, rather than unenforceable side matters.  These statements have caused considerable discussions in the print and broadcast media.


But what the debate always focuses on is the harm NAFTA has done to U.S. workers. Midkiff writes about the other side of the border and says that Matamoros, Mexico, directly across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, is hell, “a terrible vision of the apocalypse.”

One of the attributes applauded by those who signed NAFTA was that tariffs were lifted – hence the “free trade” aspect of NAFTA.  Where once products coming from Mexico were subject to heavy tariffs, NAFTA ended that. Things made in Mexico are treated the same as products made in the USA.

What happened was that it became economically beneficial for US companies to open factories – maquiladoras – in Mexico.  Labor was cheap and no funds needed to be expended on tariffs.  An unanticipated consequence was that the employees of these maquiladoras completely and totally overwhelmed the already-limited ability of Matamoras to provide the basic essentials of civilization.

And, to complicate matters further, many of those employees have constructed crude housing encampments, or colonias, on the outskirts of the city, with no availability of even minimal municipal services.

Keep in mind that these settlements are literally within sight of the United States, that the gleaming maquiladoras are in many cases owned by U.S. companies or provide “outsourcing” for production of U.S. consumer goods. Major U.S. companies are directly involved: GE, Alcoa, Delphi Automotive Systems. Keep in mind that what I am about to relate stems directly and specifically from the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With assistance and translators provided by community activists and a Matamoras city council member, I visited the maquiladoras, the colonias and, to my horror, the new and old city dumps. What I saw was a vision of hell, but a hell populated by living, breathing human beings.

While Mexico is a poor country with tremendous problems, the colonias of Matamoras are at the bottom of the pit. No electricity. No running water. No sewage system. No trash service. Cooking is conducted over wood fires in rock enclosures. Dirt or mud lanes wind between squalid hovels constructed of cinder blocks, scrap plywood, cast-off metal roofing and cardboard.

Scrawny chickens and mangy, starving dogs inhabit the streets and bare dirt yards. Bony horses and donkeys transport trash on wooden carts. The trash and wastes are dumped into an open sewer/creek that, after picking up leachate from the dumps, runs into the Gulf of Mexico, polluting the estuarial breeding grounds of shrimp and fish along the way.


The maquiladoras of Matamoras employ hundreds of thousands of people – estimates ranged from 500,000 to a million. Most of these have been recruited from rural villages of central and southern Mexico. A high wage is $10 per day; the average is $5. Tellingly, many of the maquiladoras are heavily polluting industries that emit air and water contaminants with little or no regulation.

Also, tellingly, the injury rate of employees is very high. The Matamoras City Councilmen relayed that, thanks to stipulations in NAFTA, the Mexican government is prohibited from imposing environmental or worker protections, and if it attempts to do so is subject to being sued in international courts.

What got to me were the children. Images stuck in my head: A baby, barely old enough to walk, standing in the mud in front of a shack; four children 5 to 8 years old playing marbles next to a 12-foot-high stack of cow bones with decaying meat still attached; a 10-year-old boy with no shoes scavenging in an impromptu dump; and the children peering from the dark interiors of shacks constructed of rubble.

Some of these children were the age of my grandchildren, and while I worry about their future in this country, there is little doubt about what lies ahead for the children of the border. Their future surrounds them, and it is one of despair, hopelessness and destitute horror.

So Midkiff pleads for environmental and worker protection to become part and parcel of NAFTA.

One commenter on the  Joplin Globe website, If I were president, suggested huge tariffs on American companies that moved their factories to Mexico–not on all Mexican goods, mind you, just on those from American owned companies. Hmmm.

But another commenter, Republican voice, defended, nay sympathized with, corporate behavior in third world hellholes.

Reality is that these people choose to live like this and if their life before NAFTA was so horrible that they would choose to live like this to make 5 dollars a day one can only imagine what it must have been like before. NAFTA has proven to be good for American companies and what is good for American companies is good for America. We in this country give sweatshops such a bad name, but when someone or someplace has nothing they are usually excited to have an oppertunity to work in a sweatshop. These factories have not only helped the people of Mexico, but they have also helped our companies stay profitable and stay in business. In modern times between the anti-American unions and the anti-American environmental wacko’s it is getting harder and harder for a business to stay in business and operate at a profit. It makes good sense for these companies to set up down there where they are not regulated, or collective barganed out of business. The majority of the money these factories brings in come back to the U.S. to help pay for the salaries of the ones running the business. You libs need to quit whinning and get out there and start a business and try to make a difference in the world.

Got anything you’d like to point out to Republican Voice?