Thursday, November 11, 2010

Arizona's Border Walls Don't Stop Tomatoes

(Part of a continuing Border Lines series on Cochise County, Arizona and Mexico.)

The forbidding array of the new border fortifications in the Douglas area has cut deeply into crossborder flow of illegal immigrants – dramatically fewer are coming north while those already on the U.S. side aren’t risking the traditional holiday trips back to their hometowns in Mexico.
Shift change at Agua Prieta maquila/Tom Barry
Still, Agua Prieta -- a quiet, relatively well-ordered city of 120,000 -- is, at its core, inextricably linked to the U.S. economy.
At a time when many Arizonans and other Americans are alarmed by Mexico – with Arizona politicians calling Mexico a “national security threat” – some U.S.-based companies, including an increasing number in Arizona, are moving south of the border.
EuroFresh, a multinational firm that is the country’s largest producer of greenhouse tomatoes, has, for example, opened a branch in Agua Prieta last year. The intensifying immigrant crackdown in Arizona has severely reduced the labor supply in Cochise County.
EuroFresh still operates a vast 300-acre greenhouse complex located outside Willcox, at the northern edge of Cochise County. But, unable to find enough workers in Arizona to prune, pick and package the tomatoes, the company at 5 each morning ships the tomatoes two hours south to Agua Prieta.
In the new EuroFresh maquila in Agua Prieta’s industrial zone, the workforce prunes leaves and packages the tomatoes. By the day’s end, the maquila-ed tomatoes are back on EuroFresh trucks headed for markets across the Southwest – still fresh after two border crossings. Not at risk, apparently, is the designation of EuroFresh’s producing “America’s Best Tasting Tomatoes,” according to the American Culinary Institute.
“We take out the leaves, prepare and package them, and return them the same day. And they are distributed to all the major consumers within 24 hours," said Maria Elena Rigoli, president of Collectron International Management Inc., the Mexican-owned company that manages maquila logistics in Arizona-Sonora. (Images from the tomato maquila can be found at: )
Tomato maquila in Agua Prieta/Tom Barry

The EuroFresh maquila in Agua Prieta has broken new ground in the 45-year maquila history. According to Collectron’s Rigoli, EuroFresh is the first agro-maquila among the some 200 others it has helped establish in Sonora.
It’s a case, it seems, of good-old American ingenuity at work.
It’s not American, though. EuroFresh is a Dutch-owned agribusiness.
Since 1992, when the company opened operations in Cochise County, most of its workers have been Mexicans, and now the fresh tomatoes it brings you come direct from Mexico, where for tax and logistical reasons it has partnered with a Collectron affiliate in Agua Prieta called Sonitronies, which functions as a “shelter company.”  
At a time when border security is hardening because of the drummed-up fear of criminal aliens and spillover violence from Mexico, companies like EuroFresh are heading to Mexico for “shelter.” According to Collectron, the shelter concept allows “the client the ability to maintain complete control over the Mexico production management, while also enjoying the security of knowing that administrative requirements are being met by the offshore operation.”
Twin Cities, Twin Plants
Changing shifts and childcare at Agua Prieta maquila/Barry
es) – $70-$100 for a 48-hour week – and an abundant supply of young, hard workers, along with a rafter of tax benefits, have attracted 22 foreign (mostly U.S.) firms to Agua Prieta. By no means is this weekly salary enough income to support a family. But with two or more family members working different shifts, it’s enough to get by.
Border security aims to seal the border against illegal immigrants and drugs – and to keep the drug-related violence plaguing Mexico contained on the southern side.
Oddly, though, many U.S. border towns are deeply dependent on Mexico. Conversely, many Mexican border towns like Agua Prieta depend on U.S.-owned assembly plants, like Velcro-Mex, for most of their formal employment.
At shift change, thousands of maquila worker stream out of factories where they have spent their day assembling and packaging pre-manufactured components to create seatbelts, car ignitions, seatbelts, surgical masks, Velcro products, and, more than anything else, “window treatments” – a steady stream of boxes of custom-cut shades, shutters, and blinds. Most come with a personal-touch label that bears the name of the worker who assembled the window treatment for $1.75 - $2.00 an hour, including benefits.
Not uncommon at shift change is a child exchange, as a mother, father, sister, or brother hands off an infant to the family member who has just finished his or her shift.
All these assembled goods are shipped north to U.S. consumers. It’s the global economy right next store.
You can’t miss the crossborder economic integration when in Agua Prieta. Company buses carrying maquila workers to and from the assembly plants are the most prominent form of mass transportation in town, and tractor trailers line up behind the plants everyday to carry the finished goods north.
Workers at Japanese seat-belt assembly plant in Agua Prieta
Cheap foreign labor for cost-conscious consumers in foreign countries. It’s what makes the global economy hum.
What’s so telling in border towns like Agua Prieta is not this outsourcing of labor, but just how close this foreign labor is to the foreign market. So close and so far for these Mexican women and men – divided by a line that has been walled, watched, and secured. 

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