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MEXICO: Girl's Murder Sad Symbol of Corporate Power, Child Labor, Female Exploitation on the Border

Police Say Murder is a Mystery - It's Not
by Dan La BotzMexican Labor News and Analysis
March 2nd, 1999

Irma Angelica Rosales, a 13-year-old girl, was raped and murdered on February 16 in the town of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, just a cross the border from El Paso, Texas. Her very brief life and violent death symbolize everything that is wrong with the social system which U.S. multinational corporations and the U.S. and Mexican government have created on our common border.

The police say her death is a mystery, another of the scores of unsolved murders of young women in Juarez. But for anyone who has visited the maquiladoras in the border cities, her death is no mystery at all.

Girl Child Adrift

In January Rosales left her hometown of Torreon, Coahuila and went to Juarez to look for work. She moved into her 16-year-old brother's adobe shack in a dusty working class slum, and paid $20 for a false birth certificate so she could get a job at the factory where his wife worked, Electrocomponentes de Mexico. The U.S.-owned maquiladora hired the child, and paid her about $4.00 a day to manufacture electrical components. But she actually brought home a little less, since she had to pay for the public bus transportation to and from work.

Rosales was only a girl, just a child, and she didn't adjust easily to 48 hours a week on the assembly line. I have had maquiladora managers tell me that it's hard to manage the mostly women workers in the electronics plants, because they're just kids and of course they want to talk and play. The corporations have to discipline these children. So on February 10 the company suspended Rosales for talking. But still Rosales didn't shape up, and six days later, the company reportedly fired her (though it now claims she quit), and sent her home.

Perhaps because she didn't want to spend her pitiful wages on carfare, Rosales walked. On her way home she was attacked, raped, then smothered with a plastic bag, and her body thrown into a ditch. She was the latest of 184 women who have been murdered in Juarez since January 1993. But her death is no mystery.

Maquiladoras Built on Young Women's Labor

The U.S. multinational corporations' maquiladora plants on the U.S.-Mexican border have been built on the labor of young women like Irma Angelica Rosales. Today there exist about 4,000 such plants employing almost one million workers in Mexico, about 80 percent of them on the border. Since the maquiladora program took off in the 1970s, young women have provided a majority of the assembly plant workers. In the early days they made up as much as 80 percent, today they number close to 60 percent.

While they can legally be hired only at the age of 16, in fact it is common for these girl-women to get false documents in order to go to work at ages as young as 12, 13 or 14. (Some youth get permission from parents and authorities to work legally at the age of 14.) Most of them will leave the plants before they reach 30. To get and keep their jobs, at many plants the young women must submit to medical examinations to prove that they are not pregnant.

In Tijuana, Juarez, Piedras Negras, Reynosa, and all the other border towns one sees them early in the morning heading to work through the dirty streets. Though they live in little adobe or concrete block houses, or sometimes in shacks made of shipping pallets, crates and cardboard, housing which often lacks running water, they somehow manage to wash their faces and neatly comb their hair. Despite dust and mud, the mostly dark haired and dark skinned girls wear sparkling white blouses, some walk awkwardly in their high heeles, while others wear bright lipstick, and clutching their little purses in their hands, they walk along the street or sit or stand on the buses giggling and gossiping.

When then they arrive at the factory, the work day begins, usually under the control of Mexican foremen who report to foreign-born supervisors from the United States. The somewhat older men in their 20s or 30s often engage in sexual harassment, demanding sexual favors from women workers in order to keep their job, or to get a pay raise, a transfer or a promotion.

Making Harnesses

In many of the plants, the girls work making wire harnesses for electrical appliances or for automobiles. In fact, Irma Angelica Rosales was employed in just such a plant, making wire harnesses for white goods, mostly electrical washers and dryers. The work of twisting wires, soldering circuits, and screwing pieces together is intense, tedious and exhausting.

Electrocomponentes de Mexico, the plant where Rosales worked, had previously been owned by General Electric (GE), but was sold to International Wire Group of St. Louis, Missouri a few years ago. The plant still produces some electrical components for GE products. The Electrocomponentes plant has no labor union, though there have been some attempts to organize the plant in the past, according to a company spokesman.

In Juarez, as in many other border cities, the corporations, industrial parks, and local and state governments have formed a pact to keep unions out of the plants where they do not already exist. The corporations routinely spy on employees, fire union activists and organizers, and blacklist known union sympathizers. In addition, the maquiladoras employ paternalistic strategies, offering free meals and some social programs to workers.

International Wire Group Denies Responsibility

When asked if his company regularly hired minors to work at the plant, company spokesman Tom Creevey told MEXICAN LABOR NEWS AND ANALYSIS that it did not hire workers under 16 years of age. Concerning Rosales he said, "We had a birth certificate telling us she was 16 and one half when we hired her, with a birdate of July 16, 1982, on as clean a sheet of paper as you've ever seen."

Asked if his company feels any responsibility for the workers and the communities in Juarez, Creevey, said, "At our facility we furnish three meals a day, we have a medical doctor on staff. We cater to the needs of our employees at the facility. We have been consistent with the other plants in our area as far as offering competitive wages and benefits, we offer sports teams and that sort of thing. We feel we treat our employees very well. They're our most valuable resource. We want to create an environment where our employees want to show up."

Creevey said his company could do little to control the environment beyond the plant, though it was cooperating with other corporations and the police in an attempt to offer better protection to the women workers.

Corporate Community

In fact, however, U.S. multinational corporations, their Mexican partners in the industrial parks, and the Mexican and U.S. governments bear complete responsibility for the conditions in the community that led to the murder to Irma Angelica Rosales. General Motors, Ford, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and a few dozen other U.S. corporations have created the maquiladora system of production and the pathetically inadequate social structures which support it. The U.S. corporations have created a society that breeds myriad psycho-pathologies in everyday life. If one asks who killed Rosales, the answer has to be the U.S. corporations--for they created contemporary Juarez.

The U.S. corporations have built state-of-the-art manufacturing, assembly and packing plants in Juarez. Their Mexican partners have created modern industrial parks with huge truck parking facilities, powerful electric lights, and in some cases beautifully landscaped exteriors. The U.S. and Mexican governments and private industry have constructed super-highways, railroad tracks and terminals, and airports to serve the maquiladora zone. U.S. and Mexican customs officials have built new warehouse facilities and trucking and railroad terminals and hired a small army of officials to insure that the movement of parts such as wire harnesses will not be delayed and will arrive at the assembly plant just-in-time.

But the workers live in hovels, in shacks and shanties made of mud and the flotsam and jetsam of industrial production. Many of the streets remain unpaved, dusty and muddy, and some of the homes without running water, sewers or electricity. The schools have become over-crowded, rundown, and lacking in supplies, but in any case, many of the students don't go to school -- they go to work. Those who don't go to work sometimes spend their time sniffing little cans of intoxicants such as the dangerous Resistol. More recently crack cocaine has become a drug of preference.

Thousands of men also find work in the maquiladoras at the four dollar a day wage. But some men can't find jobs in the factories of Juarez, and drift north across the border to work in the restaurants, factories and the fields of the United States. Other men become wandering vendors, selling on the streets in order to get enough money to buy their taco. Some just stand on the street corners, lost souls in the shadow of the maquiladoras.

Public safety has all but disintegrated in parts of the northern border states and cities. The drug dealers, police and even the Mexican Army cooperate in the movement of drugs across the border. But sometimes peace breaks down, and gun fights erupt between rival drug factions. The police routinely shake down workers and rob them of their wages. The body guards of the wealthy and the security guards of the factories add to the many bodies of armed men who threaten the safety of ordinary citizens.

The U.S. corporations' factory managers earning six-figure salaries whizz back and forth across the border each morning and evening, in their air conditioned luxury automobiles, coming down from their luxurious homes in the hills above El Paso, down through the old border town, then out to the industrial park and the maquiladora. The manager's impassive eyes take in the scene: the trucks arriving with the wires and circuit boards, the foremen taking their places on the floor, the girls arriving to present their false papers at the personnel office. In the office the today's newspaper lies folded on the desk. The headline reads: another girl killed, another mystery.

For the Mexican police, the murder of Irma Angelica Rosales remains a mystery. For some of us it is no mystery, but a corporate crime.