Reproduced with permission for the InterAm Database

National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade




Edward J. Williams, Ph.D.

Professor of Political Science

University of Arizona

Tucson AZ 85721

A paper delivered at a conference on "International Boundaries and Environmental Security: Frameworks for Regional Cooperation." University of Singapore, Singapore, June 1995. This revised* edition of paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington, DC, September 1995.




The Maquiladora Industry 2

Environmental Degradation 4


National Governments 9

The Local Political Context 13

Environmental Politics 16





Mexico's economic crisis of 1994-95 promises to add another increment to the ongoing controversies surrounding the nation's maquiladora industry located in the United States-Mexican Borderlands. As the crisis led to a significant devaluation of the Mexican peso, the price of Mexican labor in the maquiladoras plummeted. Measured in U.S. dollars, the wages earned in the assembly plants decreased by almost 13 percent by January 1995. Even after an adjustment, wages remained 9 percent lower in April, 1995.1 Declining wage rates encouraged U. S. and other foreign firms to expand their operations in the Mexican Borderlands.

The last Mexican economic crisis of 1982 sparked burgeoning growth in the maquiladora industry. That precedent indicates more of the same for the late 1990s. During the mid-1980s the assembly plants expanded at a rate of more than 20 percent per year. While still strong, growth trailed off in the early 1990s. The expansion of the industry in the late 1990s may not equal the pace of the mid-1980s, but early indicators promise a period of renewed growth. In the first two months of 1995, maquiladora employment rose 9.6 percent and exports from the assembly plants increased by 18.9 percent. In April of 1995, Mexican authorities approved 250 new maquiladoras. By May the value added created by the industry was running more than 16 percent ahead of the previous year.2

As even more assembly plants come in the late 1990s, the threat to the binational Borderlands' environment cannot be far behind, and another round of political disputation is sure to follow. Mexico's decision makers will be in the awkward position of encouraging maquiladora growth for pressing economic reasons, while placating environmental critics in Mexico and the U. S. who damn the assembly plants as polluters of the Borderlands. This paper describes and analyzes that scenario, paying special attention to the political influences at play as the struggle unfolds. The paper divides into several parts. Following this introduction, the paper describes the maquiladora industry and its role in the environmental degradation of the Borderlands. The crux of the political analysis extrapolates from that description. It centers upon several analytical foci. They number the national governments in each country; state and local governments and the Borderlands electorate in Mexico and the United States; and environmental and social action groups that relate to the Borderlands and/or the maquiladora industry. Pursing that analysis an increment further, the final section of the paper proposes several additional considerations and ends with a concluding analysis designed to define the issue of the maquiladora industry's relationship to Borderlands environmental degradation as the twenty first century dawns.


The Maquiladora Industry

The cooperative effort between the U. S. and Mexico is known by several names. The terms "Border Industrialization Program" and "Maquiladora Program" are most frequently used. A maquiladora (or maquila) is an assembly plant. The program is also known as the "In-bond Industry" in Mexico, referring to the fact that goods are shipped "in-bond" from the U. S. to Mexico and back. Finally, the term "twin plants" depicts a relationship between an assembly plant on the Mexican side and a smaller processing and distribution facility on the American side.

Conceptually, the maquiladora program reflects a global trend toward new forms of productive relationships afoot during the post-World War II epoch. The initiative is variously called "production sharing," "co-production," "the global assembly line," "offshore assembly," and "international subcontracting." Although cheaper labor costs have always been an element of the comparative advantage of less developed nations and technological sophistication an advantage of more developed lands, assembly operations like those in the maquiladora program combine the two in innovative ways.

Historical trends peculiar to the Mexican-United States' border region also contributed to the foundation of the maquiladora program in 1965. They involved a series of initiatives pursued by the Mexican government to improve the border region while taking advantage of its juxtaposition to the United States. As early as 1930, the maquiladora's historical antecedents began to evolve when the Mexican government attempted to promote the industrialization and economic development of the Borderlands through the establishment of free trade privileges in the region. As historical antecedents, the Bracero Program and the Programa Nacional Fronterizo (PRONAF) connected even more directly to the maquiladora industry. The Bracero Program began during World War II. Temporary Mexican workers (braceros) were brought to the United States to work in the agricultural area. When the Program ended in 1964, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were idled, most of them residing in the border cities of Mexico's north. In the interim and partially influenced by the Bracero Program, the Mexican government in 1961 launched the PRONAF to promote economic development and social improvements along the border.

From the U. S. side, the final component of the maquiladora program evolved from emerging production strategies. During the early 1960s American firms were rapidly increasing their offshore assembly activity in the Far East. In 1965, Mexico promulgated a decree facilitating similar operations in Mexico.

Environmental Degradation

The maquiladora industry contributes indirectly and directly to environmental degradation in the Mexican-United States Borderlands. Indirectly, the program forms part of a larger panoply of influences pulling migrants from central and southern Mexico to the Borderlands, creating an overload on the region's urban infrastructure and its fragile ecology. Directly, the assembly plants blight the Borderlands environment through undisciplined and illegal disposal of their waste material. Irregular dumping of hazardous and toxic wastes defines the most egregious example of the transgression.

Population has burgeoned in the binational Borderlands, particularly on the Mexican side. While Mexico's rate of growth equaled 22 percent in the 1980-1990 decenio, the eight most important Borderlands cities almost doubled that rate at 43 percent. Tijuana may well be the world's most rapidly burgeoning large city, having grown 61 percent in the 1980-90 period.3

A number of influences have pushed and pulled central and southern Mexicans to the region, most importantly its relative wealth compared with the rest of the country. In turn, the Mexican Borderland's relative wealth derives from several influences, most importantly economic spillover from the United States. The maquiladora program forms the richest (save the drug industry?) manifestation of U. S. economic spillover. Potential employment in the maquiladoras defines a significant pull factor encouraging Mexican migrants to crowd the Borderlands. In that sense, the assembly plants explain an indirect contribution to the area's environmental problems. They contribute to a situation composed of too many people massing into a fragile area in a poor country whose government has neither the financial nor human resources to construct and maintain sufficient infrastructure and services.

More directly, the maquiladora industry's production and irregular disposal of waste material blights the region. The assembly plants dump everything from raw sewage through toxic metals into the local environment.4 Numerous reports document the industry's unsafe and illegal disposal practices. They include a case of children being intoxicated at a dump in Ciudad Juárez by sniffing green rocks covered with a solvent containing toluene; and a maquiladora that closed and left in an abandoned building a dozen 55-gallon drums of hazardous material. In 1991, the Texas Water Commission claimed that only sixty percent of the hazardous wastes going from the U. S. to Mexico were being accounted for and returned to the U. S. The other 40 percent may be stored on the Mexican side or disposed of illegally. In 1995 the Mexican Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection asserted that the final disposition of 25 percent, or 13,000 tons, of hazardous and toxic wastes produced by the maquiladora industry were not accounted for.

A study conducted by an environmental action group in several Borderlands cities provides additional evidence. In 1990-91 the National Toxics Campaign Fund - Citizens' Environmental Laboratory sampled waterways in several Borderlands cities adjacent to or near suspected assembly plants. In Tijuana, Nogales, and Matamoros on the Mexican side the

sample detected pollution by petroleum, naphthalene, total xylene, chromium, copper, and other materials.5

Chronologically, the most serious problems with hazardous and toxic wastes derive from relatively recent times. The composition (quality) of the industry has changed and the numbers of plants (quantity) have multiplied, thereby creating new conditions giving rise to new problems dating from the mid-1980s. The apparel industry defined the single major component of the maquiladora industry from its foundation in 1965 through the mid-1970s. A problem with jean washing contributing to water pollution surfaced in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez in the late 1970s, but the apparel industry never constituted a serious threat to the physical environment of the Borderlands.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, electronics, chemical, and furniture industries moved to the area, posing the threat of environmental pollution. The electronics plants multiplied rapidly, and by the early 1980s electronics eclipsed apparels as the largest component of the industry. From 1979 through 1985, the number of apparel plants in the industry shrunk by 10 percent to 108, while the numbers of electronic equipment and electronic component plants increased by 40 and 60 percent, respectively, to a combined total of 274. By the early 1990s, the electronics industry came to dominate the Borderlands assembly plants. In a study of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Monterrey, electronics installations accounted for 65 percent

of all maquiladoras and fully 80 percent of all assembly plant employment in those three important cities.6 The electronics component of the maquiladora industry introduced significant new threats of environmental degradation. The industry employs large volumes of

industrial solvents in its productive process, the most serious menace to surface and ground water in the binational Borderlands.7

Though never looming so large as electronics, the chemical industry also moved to the Borderlands in the late 1980s. Only three plants existed in 1985, growing to 51 by 1989 and more than doubling to 110 by 1992 and continuing to grow thereafter. From January 1992 to January 1995, employment in the chemical plants grew from just over 8000 to more than 11,600. The chemical industry poses obvious environmental dangers, eliciting damnation and vigilance from environmental activists in the Borderlands.8 Finally, significant segments of California's furniture industry moved to the Mexican Borderlands. The U. S.-owned furniture plants fled newly enacted restrictions on the use of solvent-based paints and requirements to install spray chambers to contain fumes.9

In addition to qualitative changes in the industry, its ever-growing size also creates new challenges to the Borderlands environment. As Table One indicates, the industry's most significant spurt of rapid expansion covers the mid-1980s. Following the initiation of the nation's economic crisis and the devaluation of the peso beginning in 1982, relative wages in Mexico plummeted, catalyzing a period of rapid expansion that continued until the last years of the decade.

As the numbers of assembly plants and workers multiplied in the Borderlands in the context of national economic depression, the threat of environmental degradation increased substantially. In the first instance, more plants spelled more waste materials. In 1990, Mexico's Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology estimated that more than 1,000 maquiladoras may generate hazardous waste materials.10 Secondly, more workers implied increased strain on already inadequate infrastructure. Finally, Mexico's economic crisis of the 1980s compounded the misery of the Borderlands. Especially scarce resources in an already


Plants and Employees in the Maquiladora Industry: Selected Years


           Year                    Number of                  Employees         

                                     Plants                (Annual average)     


           1965                                                 3,000*          


           1970                       160                       20,300          


           1975                       454                       62,200          


           1980                       620                      119,600          


           1985                       760                      212,000          


           1990                       1818                     441,000          


           1995                       2136                     497,000          






* Rounded to closest 100. Sources: Leslie Sklair, Assembling for Development: The Maquila Industry.... (San Diego, CA: Center for U. S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, 1993, pp. 54, 63, 68, 241; Ellwyn R. Stoddard, Maquila: Assembly Plants in Northern Mexico. (El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1987), p. 24; and "Maquila Scoreboard", Twin Plant News (El Paso), February, 1995, p. 41

relatively poor country left precious little to satisfy the needs of Borderlands cities for sewage systems, potable water, housing, transportation, etc.

Hence, the Borderlands' environment suffered devastating degradation in the 1980s, bringing the region to the cusp of catastrophe. A now famous report issued by the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association in 1990 posited "the major factors affecting environmental health in the border area are water and air pollution." In another

frightening declaration the Council's report charged that "the border area is a virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious diseases."11

Another period of rapid assembly plant growth threatens in the mid-1990s. The political forces affecting the Borderlands will significantly influence the environmental impact of the maquiladora industry.


Political decision makers in Mexico and the United States significantly influence the issues surrounding the maquiladora industry and environmental degradation in the Mexican-U. S. Borderlands. This discussion centers upon several forces and influences engaged in the decision making arena. In Mexico and the U. S. they include the national governments; the local political context; and environmental and social action groups concerned with the maquiladora industry and/or environmental issues. As the political influences and forces are discussed, their connection to the maquiladora industry and/or environmental issues is highlighted.

National Governments

National governments in both Mexico and the United States value and cultivate the maquiladora industry, although the industry assumes more importance and receives more attention in Mexico. In the United States, any significant threat to the continued existence of the maquiladora program faded in the late 1970s, diminished further in the 1980s, and definitively passed from the realm of possibility in 1994--the year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect and the year the Republican Party took over the U. S. Congress.

Labor unions and their allies opposed the assembly plants from the inception of the program in 1965, but U. S. unions have lost significant political punch over the years as membership has diminished and public opinion has turned against organized labor. The NAFTA forms only the most recent in a series of humiliating defeats for Big Labor in the

U. S.12

The analysis of the U. S. national government's position on environmental degradation and its application to the maquiladora industry is a trifle more complex. One set of facts denies any move to regulate the maquiladora industry from the U. S. side. Laissez faire doctrines dominate Washington as the Congress grows overtly hostile to environmentalism.

On the other hand, in 1995 the United States and Mexico are putting into place in the binational Borderlands innovative arrangements to deal with waste water, potable water and other environmental initiatives. The binational Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) and the North American Development Bank (NADBank) plan to initiate their first programs in 1995. They have no competence to regulate assembly plants, but their presence in the Borderlands forms part of a larger panoply of forces and pressures designed to discipline errant practices leading to environmental degradation and to clean up the damage once it is done.

On the Mexican side, the interplay of contradictory proclivities also reveals some degree of complexity. The Mexican government's position on the maquiladora industry grows increasingly definite, but its stance on the issue of environmental protection betrays ambivalence and ambiguity. From its origins through the mid-1980s, Mexican policy makers depicted the assembly plant industry as a necessary evil designed to assist Mexico's economy on the margins, but not to be programmed as an integral element of a long-term economic strategy. That prejudice have been gradually replaced by a sympathetic posture for several reasons. Economic crises have dragged on or been replaced by new emergencies. The experiences of Asian nations like South Korea and Taiwan utilizing assembly plants as a vehicle for industrial take-off have been well-advertized. Furthermore, the ideology of Mexico's decision-making elites has evolved to a posture more in turn with private sector initiatives. Hence, the maquiladora industry is now a "priority sector" of the economy. It is prized, nurtured, and protected.

A profile of the industry in 1995 demonstrates the rationale for the maquiladoras' importance to the Mexican economy. With over 500,000 workers, the assembly plants account for about 25% of employment in the nation's manufacturing sector. As Mexico's economic crisis took its agonizing toll in 1995, the maquiladora industry proved to be one of the few areas of the Mexican economy enjoying growth. In 1994, the industry earned Mexico nigh on to $6 billion in foreign exchange, well above tourism earnings and approaching petroleum export earnings of about $7 billion, long Mexico's primary earner of foreign exchange.13

Given the industry's economic clout, the Mexico City government is quick to discipline local forces who might threaten it. In the 1990s, the Federal government jailed a Matamoros labor leader and rebuked a PANIsta official in Ciudad Juarez for transgressing the inviolability of the maquiladora industry.

If that part of the equation is clear, the Mexican central government's position on environmental control assumes more complexity. It relates to both will and capacity. Will defines the more difficult analytical component of the mix. In reviewing Mexican environmental reform and the NAFTA, the leading authority posits the parameters.14 On the optimistic side of the ledger, recent "policy measures, viewed as a package, are substantial.... Mexican officials believe that they have amply demonstrated their commitment to environmental the spirit of the NAFTA." On the other hand, environmentalists continue to question Mexico's policy reforms.

In that sense, the economic crisis of the mid-1990s gives pause. The political feasibility of environmental projects stands inversely related to the condition of the economy. Hard economic times are not propitious for environmentalists. A former director of Mexico's National University's Ocean Science Institute reflects the point in declaring "you cannot worry more about the monarch butterfly than people who don't have enough to eat. We have to develop our own regulations and standards." To the point, the NAFTA does not compel tri-national standardization of environmental regulations. Mexico enjoys flexibility to move toward less rigorous standards. Indeed, President Ernesto Zedillo did exactly that. In mid-1995 he announced reforms that discontinue environmental and public health impact statements from small businesses engaged in activities considered to be relatively benign.15

Beyond the uncertain will of the Mexican government to press the maquiladora industry, the nation's capacity is clearly lacking. To be sure, Mexico has achieved some success in upgrading its capacity in recent years. For example, the number of field inspectors almost doubled during the previous sexenio (six year presidential term, 1988-94). But, the program remains inadequate. It is "grossly under-funded," with "very modest allocations to environmental enforcement," and the "numbers of [field inspectors] are a fraction of what is necessary to police environmental practices nationwide." In the Borderlands, funding

"scarcely covers salaries, much less operating expenses, for those handling inspections, data analysis, and enforcement."16

By way of redeeming qualities, however, it should be recalled that Mexico is part of the Borderlands BECC and NADBank initiative that promises a new presence for the repair and preservation of the area's environment. Without exaggerating the will or the capacity of the new institutions, they form part of a series of measures that define a significant new binational Borderlands departure in a geographic region that is beginning to assume the embryonic form of binational space.

Binational environmental activist groups comprise another component of that larger movement. They are discussed anon, but a sense of the comprehensive context first calls for a description and analysis of the local political context.

The Local Political Context

Although the ingredients of the compound differ from the national political context, the local scene counts the same mix of positive and negative responses to the maquiladora industry and a similar ambiguity on issue of Borderlands environmental degradation. If anything, state and local governments tend to be more supportive of the maquiladora industry than their national counterparts. And, in that vein, they evidence less zeal in their opposition to environmental degradation that may be connected with the assembly plants.

The maquiladora industry enjoys significant local support on both sides of the boundary line in the binational Borderlands. On the United States side, traditional local business elites coalesce with a newly evolved "transnational capitalist class" to support the industry. The traditional merchants wax prosperous as the Mexican Borderlands expand their populations. Increasingly large numbers of Mexicanos cross the line to shop, many of them maquiladora workers who spend significant percentages of their wages in U. S. Borderlands cities. An early study by Mexico's Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior estimated that 60 to 75 percent of maquiladora wages were spent on the U. S. side.17 It is no wonder that Nogales, Arizona merchants have worked with the local maquiladora association and U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials to institute a special program to facilitate granting crossing (shopping) cards to assembly plant workers.

The Borderlands "transnational capitalist class" is a product of the maquiladora industry. It is mostly composed of Americans, but includes Mexicans. The group counts an assortment of entrepreneurs, developers, executives, managers, bankers and brokers who work in the industry or who service it. These men and women obviously owe their livelihoods to the assembly plants, and they doggedly support the maquiladora industry on the local, national, and international scenes.

The traditional commercial groups and the newer interests affiliated with the maquiladora industry count comparatively few members, but they exercise significant political influence in the Borderlands. They are relatively rich, well-educated, and sophisticated in a socio-economic and political milieu characterized by poverty, ignorance, and political authoritarianism and/or low levels of political mobilization.

Extrapolating from the influence of the local elites associated with the maquiladora industry and the semi-authoritarian nature of the Mexican political system, state and local government in Mexico mirrors strong support for the maquiladoras. Mexican state and local government reflect the hierarchical characteristics of the general system. The state governor is the President's man; he hues to the line dictated from Mexico City. The same norms inform the relationship between the governor and the local presidente municipal. Therefore, state and local governmental relations with the industry generally reflect the national position. If anything, they may be even more supportive and less critical, given the influence of the local elites and the significance of the maquiladora industry in the local economies. One study, for example, proposes that 45 percent of the workforce in Nogales, Sonora is directly or indirectly tied to the maquiladora industry.18

The local population plays a negligible role in the balance of political forces. Although in transition to a more dynamic mode, the Mexican political participant is more potential than actual. Authoritarianism runs deeply in the political culture. The government rules the official party. Almost half the population is below the legal voting age of 18. Potential voters do not participate. For the 1989 elections, for example, nigh on to 50 percent (45.7) did not register and of registered voters almost 50 percent (45.6) failed to vote. Particularly in the burgeoning Borderlands cities, many potential political participants are transients with no interest in local political or physical environment.19

On the U. S. side of the binational Borderlands, the political potency of the local populations is a trifle higher, but still not very significant. Mexican-Americans compose majorities in the Borderlands on the American side. They are poor and unschooled, not the socio-economic makings of effective political participants.

Most residents of the U. S. Borderlands rank relatively poorer than their countrymen. San Diegans define the only exception. From San Diego looking east, border peoples suffer from increasing poverty. At the far east of the Borderlands, Mexican-Americans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas rank with the poorest people in the country year in and year out. Borderlanders are also relatively unschooled. A recent survey showed Mexican Americans advancing beyond the high school level at about one half the rate of Anglo-Americans.20

It is not surprising that poverty stricken, poorly educated Mexican Americans do not mobilize politically, nor do they demonstrate much interest in environmental issues. The most comprehensive survey of Latinos yet undertaken reflected the differences between Mexican- American and Anglo-American political participation the 1988 elections. Seventy percent of Anglo-Americans voted in the presidential election, but only 49 percent of Mexican- Americans. About the same differences existed in the level of voting for the House of Representatives, 61 to 39 percent, respectively.21

Given their relative poverty, Mexican-American Borderlanders do not place much emphasis on the environment. In a list of eight public policy areas, Mexican-Americans ranked "improving the environment" below the median, behind socio-economic priorities like crime control and drug prevention, public education, health care, and child care services.

Environmental Politics

Environmental, labor, and social action groups concerned with the problem of the maquiladora program's ruination of the Borderlands' environment obviously define a much purer position than national or local governments. They are dedicated to terminating the irregular dumping of hazardous and toxic wastes in the binational Borderlands.

While their mission is clearly defined, an analysis of their political capabilities implies a degree of uncertainty. Environmentalists wax infinitely more influential than they did a generation ago when Rachel Carson launched the movement with the publication of Silent Spring (1962), but they may not be so puissant as they were in the early 1990s. Their sometime collaborators in the labor union movement unquestionably wane in power. The political punch of social action groups varies according to time, place, and purpose.

Environmentalism defined the socio-political movement of the 1980s and the early 1990s in the United States. Though behind its U. S. counterpart across the board, the Mexican movement evolved at about the same time. Both attracted the young, idealistic, and enthusiastic. The U. S. movement multiplied its membership, its financial resources, and its political influence during the 1980s. National environmentalists first seriously connected with the Borderlands in the late 1980s as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into negotiation. Their considerable public relations and mobilization skills contributed significantly to encouraging the Clinton Administration to negotiate the environmental side accord to the NAFTA in 1993.

As noted previously, the Republican Party's victory in the 1994 elections presaged political attitudes less sympathetic to environmentalists' political designs. A similar re-evaluation may well be afoot in Mexico. Hence, the overall political punch of the environmentalists in the national political arena appears to be declining in the mid-1990s.

With that point posited, environmentalists and other social action groups are alive and well in the binational Borderlands. They stand more influential than at any time since the definition of the boundary line in the mid-nineteenth century. Reflecting larger trends that apply to a continuum of cultural, social, economic, and political initiatives, environmentalists have connected to a growing focus on the Borderlands in both Mexico and the United States. The number of environmental organizations in the Borderlands numbers in excess of 200. Environmental mobilization is certainly the most visible of the new movements in Borderlands politics.

The most provocative and significant manifestation of those trends centers upon the growth of binational environmental (and human rights) organizations in the Borderlands. Binational cooperation amongst environmentalists began in the early 1980s, but the several enterprises moved into a new stage with the broaching of the NAFTA. The NAFTA riveted attention on the environmental degradation of the Borderlands, sparking the formation of national and Borderlands organizations and linking a number into effective examples of international cooperation.

A complete catalog of those binational organizations is beyond the ken of this essay, but a listing of several across the U. S. border states serves to capture the point. In Texas and Mexico's state of Nuevo León, the Texas Center for Policy Studies has joined with Bioconservación of the state capital of Monterrey to pursue the Binational Project on the Environment. In New Mexico, the research and policy-oriented International Transboundary Resources Center (Centro Internacional de Recursos Transtfrontorizos) works with like-minded Mexican colleagues in several locations. In Arizona, the Border Ecology Project assumes a leading role in the binational Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente. In California, finally, the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition cooperates with the Tijuana-based Comité Ciudadano Pro Restauración del Canon del Padre on a series of environmental issues.22

On both side of the international boundary line, environmentalists engage in numerous activities. They collect data and monitor air and water standards. They support community Right to Know initiatives; they network with like minded groups; they lobby nationally and transnationally. And environmental groups also generate funds for local environmental

remediation. Many of those initiatives relate directly to the region's maquiladora industry.

Public health advocates, labor unions, social action groups, and human rights activists also lend their support to discipline the maquiladora program in the binational Borderlands. Public health advocates frequently work closely with environmentalists in the area of environmental health. The newly-minted United States-Mexico Border Health Foundation reflects a significant success in the health field. It should be functioning by 1996.

Organized labor is also active in the Borderlands. Frustrated by its inability to defeat the NAFTA, the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL/CIO) has launched a campaign to organize the maquiladoras in the Borderlands. It works with the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), a small, independent Mexican labor movement. While not directly focused upon environmental issues, the AFL/CIO-FAT

coalition contributes to an atmosphere designed to discipline the assembly plants by focusing public attention on their activities.

Of the several social action groups concerned with the maquiladora program, the binational Committee for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) is by far the most significant. The CJM counts a coalition of unions, religious groups, human rights activists, public health interests, and environmentalists. It pursues a wide ranging strategy that includes picketing and demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, lobbying and testifying before legislative and administrative bodies, and organizing stockholders of companies active in the maquiladora

program. The CJM concentrates on measures to implement new policies governing working conditions, safety standards, and, of course, environmental protection.

Binational human rights advocates also play a role in the coalition of forces that buffet the industry. Of the several organizations, the best known is the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and their Mexican co-religionists, the Amigos. Among other initiatives that impact the maquiladoras, the AFSC organized the Comités de Apoyo (Support Committees) for workers in the assembly plants in the lower Rio Grande Valley cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. The Comités assist the maquiladora workers to organize.

Public health, labor, social action, and human rights advocates do not always center their attention on the environmental issues that form the focus of this analysis, but they contribute to a milieu of vigilance in the Borderlands. Like the environmentalist groups, they act as a countervailing power to the significant influence wielded by the maquiladora industry in the binational Borderlands. In that sense, they connect to a larger political context that operates in the Borderlands to counter environmental degradation perpetrated by the assembly plants.

Beyond the immediate political milieu, several other factors play into that scenario. The final section of this paper posits and analyzes them.


Several changes in train in the maquiladora program and/or the Borderlands pertain to an analysis of the assembly plants' connection to environmental degradation in the region. Perhaps most importantly, a heightened awareness of the assembly plants' contribution to the blight of environmental degradation in the Borderlands has increased across the board, from Washington and Mexico City to Brownsville and Matamoros. Therefore, the industry polices

itself more effectively than in years past. Furthermore, meaningful infrastructural improvements are building in the Borderlands with the promise of more to come.

The industry has become more responsible in the 1990s. The area-wide Border Trade Alliance (BTA) takes a leading role in educating and encouraging the industry to improve its environmental policies and programs, including disposing of hazardous and toxic wastes. Local maquiladora associations in the Borderlands also exert pressure on their members to pursue more responsible environmental practices.

A part of the explanation for the positive advances stems from more effective education. In the 1980s, many plant managers remained ignorant of the consequences of their actions and unaware of legal norms governing the use and disposal of waste materials growing out of an agreement between the U. S. and Mexico in 1987. Dick Kamp, a leading Borderlands environmentalist, reports good results from informational seminars conducted with the maquiladora association in Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora, across the line from Douglas, Arizona. Educational programs have also improved the capabilities of the U. S. Customs Service and its counterpart, the Mexican Aduana.23

The companies are responding. Worker education helps by training workers in the use of protective clothing and safer work habits. More companies are returning their hazardous and toxic wastes to the U. S., as required by law. In an important initiative, General Motors

is installing in the mid-1990s water treatment facilities in its 35 plants in Mexico, more than half of them in the Borderlands.24

Expanded enforcement plays into the improving scenario. While still far short of the personnel needed for frequent and effective vigilance, Mexico's inspection corps has more than doubled to over 400. The inspectors are also more competent than previously, having received training by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. A maquiladora manager in Nogales, Sonora reports unexpected visits from Mexican inspectors, "sometimes even twice a month." Those practices define a significant change from times past.25

New infrastructure in the Borderlands also forms part of the equation. While not directly germane to the issue of hazardous and toxic materials, new waste water treatment plants are under construction in San Diego (on the U. S. side) and Nuevo Laredo (on the Mexican side). More cogently, treatment facilities for hazardous and toxic wastes are also building on both sides of the boundary line. Newly developing industrial parks also connect directly to the issue of hazardous and toxic wastes. Most of the new facilities under construction provide processing facilities on property for many types of waste materials. Furthermore, industrial parks lend discipline to the continuum of maquiladora operations. All

of the parks posit rules and regulations, and all provide a context for peer re-enforcement of legal and informal norms governing correct conduct.26

Finally, new financial institutions offer some additional promise of effective environmental management and clean-up in the binational Borderlands. The BECC and NADBank constitute far from perfect institutions, and their basic funding of $3 billion and claims of leveraging additional funding for a total of $9 billion remain a trifle uncertain and/or hyperbolic. But they certainly go far beyond the near vacuum of financial resources for environmental programs that existed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover, the economic crisis has catalyzed the Mexican government to levy substantial taxes on the maquiladora industry for the first time. The Secretary of Hacienda (Treasury) cast regulations in 1995 to implement 1994 legislation designed to levy corporate income and/or assets taxes on the industry. Some of those funds are destined to return to the Borderlands communities that house the maquiladoras.27

In conclusion, two major contradictory trends influence the maquiladora industry's contribution to environmental degradation in the binational Borderlands on the eve of the twenty-first century. On the one hand, Mexico's economic crisis and concomitant wage depression invites another round of significant growth for the industry. Additional assembly plants promise the threat of more waste material contaminating the Borderlands environment. On the other hand, the mid-1990s presents a more mature Borderlands scenario than the mid-1980s when undisciplined dumping ravaged the region. The NAFTA has mobilized potent political opposition amongst sophisticated environmentalists. They convinced the governments to negotiate a side agreement to the free trade treaty specifically given over to environmental protection. Private companies appear to be more responsible. Most importantly new social action, political, and financial organizations and institutions are in place in the binational Borderlands. They promise to manifest permanent vigilance and to undertake ongoing policies and programs to repair the damage of the past and avoid the depredations of the future.