MEXICO CITY — Martín Mateo had a cold. Or so he thought: sore throat, body aches, runny nose. “He felt bad but kept working,” said his son, Carlos. The 50-year-old father had labored for decades as a tomatero — a tomato man — at Latin America’s biggest food market.
Coronavirus? He didn’t believe in it.
Then he started gasping for breath. Within days, he was dead.
By then, scores of Mateo’s fellow tomateros also were infected. Workers hoisted yellow signs outside the market reading “High Contagion Zone.” At least 10 tomato men died from mid-April to mid-May. They included Mateo’s cousin Antonio, a bookkeeper at a neighboring stall named Guillermo, and a bald man everyone called El Peluche — loosely, “Fuzzy.”
The tomato aisle at Mexico City’s famed Central de Abasto market offers a glimpse into why the virus has hit the country so hard. It scythed its way through the sprawling complex, picking off workers made vulnerable by the problems of poverty: chronic illnesses, distrust of government, a need to keep earning money.
While there are no official data, vendors can name dozens of people in the vegetable aisles alone who lost their lives — green-bean sellers, chili vendors, potato men — in one of the most brutal outbreaks in the city.
“Here we didn’t believe” the coronavirus was a threat, said 57-year-old Anastasio Ramón Alonso, a longtime tomato vendor. “But when people began to die and die and die, we lost our incredulity.”
Officials have reported more than 20,000 coronavirus deaths in Mexico, undoubtedly an undercount. The virus appears to have entered the country with the upper class — people returning from business trips in Italy and skiing holidays in Colorado. But it spread quickly to low-income workers, who have been hit particularly hard.
As in the United States, Mexico’s poor have less access to adequate health care. They suffer high levels of diabetes, hypertension and obesity. But here, the situation is especially precarious. About half of Mexico’s workers hold “informal” jobs — maid, laborer, market vendor — with no unemployment insurance.
Carlos Mateo, 31, followed his father into the tomato trade. He typically pockets about $10 a day.
“If we didn’t work,” he said, “we had no money.”
In Mexico City, the epicenter of the country’s epidemic, officials are now ramping up testing and contact tracing. Belatedly, the city-owned market has dispatched health workers to check on the use of face masks and antibacterial gel and to provide temperature checks.
“At the beginning, workers didn’t take the necessary precautions,” said Claudia Pérez Ocampo, the manager of one stall. “When they saw people dying, they began to protect themselves. But it hit many people.
“More than anything, it hit the tomato men,” she said. “A lot of tomato men.”
Paying the cost for years of poor health
Hector Garcia, manager of the Central de Abasto, told reporters April 26 that the coronavirus had been detected at the 1.3-square-mile market. The news was worrisome: The wholesale market supplied food to 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. Supermarkets, restaurants and families relied on its 90,000 workers.
Now, Garcia said, two of those employees had died and an additional 23 were infected.
The reality was far worse.
Deep in the market, in Aisle Q-R, a half-dozen tomato vendors had already died. They included Mateo, who succumbed on April 18. Over three decades, he’d become a fixture of the tomato aisle, a man who would lend others his truck, who always had a smile, who powered through 10-hour days before finally flopping into a chair to watch action movies on Netflix.
“He was good to us — really, good to everyone,” said his brother Mauro, 48, who worked with him in stall Q-67, a narrow, fluorescent-lit space piled with boxes of Roma and beefsteak tomatoes.
Mateo had hypertension, a risk factor for serious cases of the coronavirus. Many of his colleagues had chronic illnesses, too. Down the hall, David Hernández, a father of two in his early 50s, had diabetes. He died in mid-April. “It all happened so fast,” co-worker Roberto Sicilia said.
Across the hall, in Q-5, Isaac Pluma had contracted some kind of cold. The 46-year-old father of two had diabetes, but he kept working, wheezing as he climbed the stairs. “The boss tried to send him home to rest. He didn’t want to,” co-worker Enrique González said. “He needed the money.”
Pluma died on April 21.
Pedro Hernández, 58, a quiet man in Q-21, was becoming alarmed. He, too, had diabetes. In late April, he decided to stop coming to work. “He looked fine,” co-worker Alberto González said. Soon, he was intubated. He died in early May.
Nearly three-quarters of Mexico’s coronavirus fatalities have involved underlying conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. As cheap, processed foods and sugary soft drinks have proliferated in recent decades, particularly in poor neighborhoods, obesity and other chronic illnesses have multiplied.
Even before Mexico reported its first cases, epidemiologists were fearful about the virus’s effect on a country suffering a nutritional crisis.
“We know we are going to pay the cost of 30 or 40 years of deteriorating health,” the coronavirus czar, Hugo López-Gatell, said in late March.
‘We were left defenseless’
After announcing the outbreak at the Central de Abasto, the management and city officials swung into action. They dispatched 430 health promoters in white protective suits to roam the halls, take temperatures and ask about symptoms. They offered coronavirus tests. They insisted workers use face masks and antibacterial gel.
Tomato vendors said it was too late.
“We were left defenseless,” said Rafael Vergara, who manages one of the bigger businesses, in stall R-34. Twelve of his 30 workers got sick, starting in mid-April. He sent employees to private clinics for tests. But few other businesses did. Mexico’s government has not pursued a program of mass testing and contact tracing; officials have said it would be impractical for a population of 128 million.
Without tests, most market employees saw no evidence they were infected. “Many people felt bad, but they didn’t go home,” Vergara said. “They continued to work.”
The government had launched a major publicity campaign about the coronavirus, with nightly news conferences. But it failed to convince the tomato workers.
“Mexicans tend to say ‘the government is trying to screw us,’ ” explained Omar Martínez, whose family runs the tomato stand at Q-1.
That distrust had deep roots. Writer and activist Irene Tello Arista grew up in Iztapalapa, the densely packed borough that surrounds the market. She noted that many residents lacked even basic public services, such as reliable running water. Their attitude was: “If the government has never looked out for me in my daily life, why are they going to do it now?”
Up and down the vegetable aisles, word spread that hospitals were dangerous places where doctors were deliberately killing people. The stories were absurd. But many vendors believed them. They were used to poor health care.
Martín Mateo and his cousin Antonio Samano, 46, were initially misdiagnosed with colds and sent home, Carlos Mateo said. They died on the same day. Carlos Mateo and his uncle Mauro were infected, but recovered.
It was like that, the mysterious virus: pinging through families, longtime co-workers, old friends. For Martínez, it started in April with his 66-year-old uncle Marcial, who had to be intubated. Then his aunt Antonieta, 51, died. On May 11, Martínez lost his father, Juan, a devoted Catholic who had helped pay for the bell in the nearby church.
He was 70, with diabetes. But he was never tested.
“He didn’t want to go to the hospital,” his son said. “Hospitals are bad.”
Protecting the Central’s workers was never going to be easy. The market supplies 80 percent of the capital’s food; some 300,000 buyers and delivery personnel visit each day. It couldn’t shut down.
Further complicating matters, it’s highly fragmented. The market management employs only about 1,000 of the 90,000 personnel — mostly janitors and administrative staff. The rest work for the entrepreneurs who own or lease the 7,418 stalls.
Some tried to be responsible. Eusebio Hernández’s boss, for example, told him to take time off with pay. Hernández was 60, worn out from years of pulling carts piled with boxes of produce. Still, he was a lively presence in stall R-18, arguing politics and teasing young female workers.
“He didn’t want to go home,” co-worker Esperanza Iglesias said, but he complied. He died two weeks later.
Others didn’t have the luxury of paid leave. Jaime Garcia lost his good friend Héctor Tamayo — El Peluche — next door in R-64.
Garcia continues to come to work, though he’s 66.
“People with money can stay one, two, even three months at home,” he said. “But those of us who live day-to-day have no financial support.”
‘No one believed what the government said’
No one knows how many market workers have died. There are only rumors, said Pedro Torres, head of an association of fruit and vegetable sellers.
“Many people will say there are hundreds. Others will say thousands," he said. "But we have no precise statistics.”
Garcia, the manager, said he knew of six deaths among his 1,000 workers. Jorge Ochoa, a senior city health official, said deaths are registered by victims’ residence, not their place of work.
Interviews with vendors indicate that at least dozens lost their lives. Israel González, sitting amid mounds of green chilies in the O-P aisle, said he knew of nine fatalities in his section. Erik Cesario, another chilero, put the figure at 25. “It attacked us terribly,” he said.
Fernando Ponce, who sells green beans and carrots, said 15 from his area had died. Edgar Elías Chacón, a longtime papero — potato man — knew of 10.
Many of the bosses stayed home. Workers couldn’t. “The poor have paid the biggest price,” Chacón said.
Ochoa said the city’s actions at the market have brought the virus under control. More than 2,500 people have been tested, he said; 543 were positive. “It’s been one of our biggest successes, the strategy in the Central de Abasto,” he said.
But workers cite another reason the epidemic was curbed: Dozens of stall owners decided to shut down for weeks. They’ve only recently reopened.
“No one believed what the government said, until we began to see the dead,” tomato vendor Jorge Amaro recalled. “And then we said, ‘This is ugly. Let’s get out of here.’ ”
Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design by J.C. Reed. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld.