Page 3 of 3   <      

In Mexico, 'People Do Really Want to Stay'

Two hours south, in the village of Ejido Modelo Emiliano Zapata, Ruben Rivera sat on a bench in a forlorn plaza, rather than working on his seven-acre farm. He used to grow tomatoes and onions, hiring 150 workers to help at harvest. Now he doesn't even bother to plant. He can buy onions in the supermarket more cheaply than he can grow them. A crop of tomatoes yields less than the taxes. He lives off the $800 sent home monthly by his three sons, who run a yardwork business in Macon, Ga.

"For people who can grow huge scale for export, NAFTA has been good," he said. "For people like us, it's been a bloodbath."

In the nearby town of Tizapan el Alto, where traditionally 90 percent of local people have farmed, one-third of all agricultural jobs have been wiped out in the last five years, said Mayor Ramon Martinez.

About 200 have gained jobs assembling electronics in maquiladoras on the edges of Guadalajara, earning as much as $23 a day, nearly double farm pay. Martinez is courting investment for a factory in his town. But roads and other facilities are in rough shape, and global investment is flowing to China.

"People do really want to stay," the mayor said, but with the pull of the north, almost half his town's official population of 19,000 has decamped for the United States. "We're basically exporters of people."

In the Heart of Chicken Country

Jalisco has long been one of the primary sources of Mexican immigrants to the United States. And its farms produce more than 10 percent of Mexico's poultry. What happens next year, when the tariffs come off chicken imported from the United States, could test how continued globalization is altering life on both sides of the border.

In the town Atotonilco el Alto, Sergio Garcia's chicken houses are scattered among lemon orchards and rows of blue-green agave cactus, the source of tequila. Garcia is betting that Fresko Pollo, the chicken business his father started from the back of a truck in 1950, can survive the expected American onslaught by catering to local tastes. His workers weigh chickens and slaughter only those of ideal size. He runs a chain of retail shops, where he sells marinated breasts, chicken sausages and smoked chicken prepared at his processing plant.

"I'm not so worried, because we're not just producers," Garcia said. "Despite free trade, niches remain."

But he knows he faces a formidable foe. An archetype of efficiency, the American poultry industry is dominated by enormous brands that control all aspects of production -- employing computerized feed mills that mix grains, mechanized slaughterhouses, and hatcheries that use genetic science to breed disease-resistant chicks.

At Garcia's feed mill, workers shovel grain by hand. At his slaughterhouse, a man slices throats with a wood-handled blade.

Feed amounts to nearly 60 percent of the cost of raising a chicken. For the American poultry industry, the cost has been held down, historically, by subsidies for corn production. In 2005, American cropland for corn received a range of subsidies worth more than $10 billion, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Labor, where Mexico has an advantage, makes up only about 5 percent of production costs.

Already, Garcia is feeling the pressure. Americans prefer breast meat, while Mexicans opt for dark. So U.S. poultry producers can sell leg quarters -- dark meat -- in Mexico at low prices and still make money. From January 2005 to January 2006, even though a 59 percent tariff applied to some chicken imports, the wholesale price of chicken leg quarters sold in Mexico City plunged by nearly one-fourth, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Next year, as NAFTA's final provisions kick in, the door opens to unlimited imports.

"The price will fall," Garcia said. "It could drop by half."

In the village of Pegueros, a center of poultry, NAFTA is a word laden with anxiety. Corn farmers saw prices fall due to American imports, though demand for ethanol in the United States, made from corn, is now sending prices up. Dairy farmers have been decimated, a trend expected to intensify next year as protections on powdered milk expire.

The forces of trade have laid waste to the Mexican dream of Trino Franco, who came home three years ago to launch a dairy business with his three brothers after more than a decade in the north. He poured $40,000 into the venture -- everything he saved in Los Angeles, where he parked cars at a 24-hour gym from six in the morning until two in the afternoon, then worked security at a hotel until 11 at night.

But the price of milk has dropped by nearly one-fifth in the last year. The farm has lost money, forcing Franco, 38, to take a job as general manager at a larger dairy operation. He earns $200 a week, enough to keep him home with his wife and baby. For now.

"You can't see a good future in this area," he said. "That's why so many people cross the border."

Pedro Martin, still at home while so many friends and relatives make their lives in another country, is intent that his three boys -- 13, 8 and eight months -- stay in Mexico. On a recent morning, as firecrackers boomed in salute to Mexico's patron saint, Guadalupe, a procession of shiny SUVs pulled into Pegueros, their license plates advertising the riches of Texas, Virginia and California. People were returning for Christmas.

Martin professed no envy. His sister and her two boys are crammed into an $1,100-a-month apartment in San Francisco. The boys have to work to help pay the rent. "They're thinking of returning," Martin said. His own boys are growing up with the fresh air and broad vistas of Jalisco.

But in the adjacent town of Tepatitlan, the people in control of the poultry farms are fretting. They are organizing into cooperatives to improve their bargaining position as they brace for a flood of imports next year. The well-trod path to El Norte is never far from their minds.

"If there are corn subsidies in the United States and none here, we're dead," said Lorenzo Martin, president of the Tepatitlan Poultry Farmers Association and the head of one large producer. "If the U.S. starts selling things extra cheap outside the U.S., then it won't just be small farmers and individuals who will be leaving. It will be people like me."

Database Editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.


<          3

© 2007 The Washington Post Company