Miners and farmers challenge Mexico’s copper giant

Traveling west across the Sonoran desert, just south of the U.S. border on Mexico’s Route 2, La Mariquita peak dominates the horizon for miles. Just below it rise huge ochre mountains of tailings from the world’s second largest copper mine – Cananea.

As the highway approaches town, it passes a huge white concrete water tank and adjacent pumping station. Normally its huge pipes would be humming from the water flowing through them to the mine. For two weeks, though, the pumps have been silent and the flow halted. Instead, in what is normally empty desert, tents and busses line the highway. Dust and smoke from cooking fires fill the air. Hundreds of people walk about, listen to speeches, or just talk among themselves.

Cananea occupation

This planton, or occupation, has successfully shut most operations at the mine. Cananea must consume huge quantities of water pumped from 49 wells across the desert in order to process crushed ore into copper concentrate.

Many of the planton’s residents are miners who went on strike in 2008. Two years later the mine was reopened by massive police intervention. Since then it has been operated by contracted laborers recruited from far distant parts of Mexico. Now, for the first time in six years, 80 percent of the mine is again paralyzed. This time, however, strikers didn’t stop the operation by themselves. Half of the people with them here are farmers-residents of the Rio Sonora valley, angry over a toxic spill that upended their lives in August last year.

This winter groups of miners fanned out to the small towns along the river, talking about that disaster’s impact. Strikers and community leaders called meetings in the town plazas, making speeches through jerry-rigged speakers on the back of pickup trucks. Finally, on March 18, busses headed from the towns toward Cananea. Mine managers, hearing they were coming, called out hundreds of police to keep strikers from blocking the mine gates.

The protestors outflanked them. Instead of heading through town to the mine itself, they roared down the highway to the pumping station. Facing hundreds of angry miners and farmers, the operators shut down the pumps and fled. And as the pumps grew quiet, so did operations at the mine itself.

The first battle of the Mexican Revolution was fought here, when a miner’s insurrection challenged the mine’s U.S. owner, Colonel William Green, in 1906. That earned the town its reputation as “Revolutionary Cananea.”

Grupo Mexico copper

Over the years since, the mine first belonged to U.S. corporations, and then was taken over by the Mexican government. It’s union, Section 65 of the national miners’ union, the Mineros, had a strong contract. Work in the mine, while dangerous, paid better than most jobs in Mexico. Miners built small homes in the town at the foot of the mountain.

In 1990, however, the mine was sold to Grupo Mexico, a corporation owned by German Larrea, for $475 million, less than a quarter of its market value. Larrea bought the privatized national railroad as well. Capitalizing on his friendship with then President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, he became one of the wealthiest men in Mexico, worth over $15 billion

Grupo Mexico produces two-thirds of Mexico’s copper and has the largest copper reserves in the world. It bought the U.S. mining corporation American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) in 1999, and now owns mines in Arizona. It operates the world’s fifth largest copper mine in Peru, and is negotiating to buy others in Spain. 

Corporate expansion, however, came at a price. In 1998 miners struck in Cananea to stop reductions in the workforce to cut labor costs. After Grupo Mexico asked the government to call in troops to break the strike, 800 miners were laid off. Union leaders were blacklisted. According to Carlos Navarette, one of the organizers of the planton, “the company blacklisted us throughout the whole country.” In one job interview, he charges, “the person interviewing me asked me where I was from, and I told him from the south. But then he saw my name on his computer. He said, ‘There’s no work for you here.'”

Anger mushroomed in 2006 when 65 miners died in an explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine. Workers had complained of gas leaks, and struck repeatedly over safety concerns. After five days, however, the company halted rescue efforts, and the government announced the mine would be closed.

Union leader in exile

The head of the Mineros, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, accused the corporation and government of “industrial homicide.” Within weeks the conservative administration of President Vicente Fox charged him with fraud, and Gomez left Mexico to escape arrest. Since then all charges against him were found groundless, and he has been reelected union president several times. Nevertheless, he continues to stay in Vancouver, Canada, worried that the government and Grupo Mexico will find another pretext for jailing him should he return. 

In 2008 miners in Cananea went on strike again, over health and safety concerns. They charged that the company had disconnected the huge fans and pipes that extract dust from the buildings where the ore is crushed. Dust buildup can cause silicosis, permanently damaging miners’ lungs. A study by a team of U.S. and Mexican health and safety experts found “substantial elevations in the prevalence of respiratory symptoms” among miners and that “a significant percentage of this population may have radiologic silicosis.” In one area acid mist was so prevalent it had eaten away at the structure of the building.

Under Mexican law, an enterprise that is on strike cannot continue to function, so the mine stopped operation. But Grupo Mexico asked the administration of Mexico’s next president, Felipe Calderon, to declare the strike illegal. In spite of court decisions upholding its legality, the government complied. Three thousand federal police drove miners from the gates and the mine was then reopened.

Grupo Mexico created a new business entity, Buenavista de Cobre, to hire workers through contractors to replace the strikers. Sergio Martinez, who worked in the foundry for 13 years, says that before the strike miners got a base pay of 1800 pesos for working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. With a productivity bonus, they earned at least 3000 pesos ($215). Today the contracted employees earn 1200 pesos ($85) a week, and work 12 hours a day instead of 8. Adjusted for inflation, the average wage in mining nationally is 21 percent lower today than it was in 1978.

Says another miner, “If you say you’re from Cananea, you can’t get a job. Ninety percent of the people now working in the mine are from far away. This is very humiliating for people here. You have kids and there’s no work for them either – even more humiliating.” Like many others, this miner crossed the border without documents to find work in Arizona. “I left my family here. The pain of our separation can’t be compared to anything,” he laments.

Toxic spill

Then last August 40,000 cubic meters (10.5 million gallons) of concentrated sulfuric acid and heavy metals was released from a holding pond at the mine into the headwaters of the Sonora River. Arturo Rodriguez, of the office of the Attorney General for Environmental Protection, told the Associated Press that the cause was lax supervision at the mine, along with rains and construction defects. Grupo Mexico didn’t respond to requests for comment, but according to Yahoo News, Juan Rebolledo, vice president for international relations, said that the acid wasn’t toxic and “there’s no problem, nor any serious consequence for the population, as long as we take adequate precautions.” Grupo Mexico’s solution was to pour calcium into the river to neutralize the acid.

Miners charge, however, that Grupo Mexico was using a contractor, Tecovifesa, to work on the dam. “Before the strike, experienced union members, who were direct employees, did all the work,” according to Martinez.

And although the spill began on August 6, the company didn’t tell the river communities until August 8. Many only discovered what had happened when the river turned orange. “Our children were at the river that day,” remembers Reyna Valenzuela, from Ures. “We didn’t know they would be affected because the company didn’t tell anyone.” The children got extreme rashes, and doctors finally told her they were due to heavy metal exposure. Other residents began to experience more serious health problems.

The family’s business making sweets and cheese folded when customers in the state capital didn’t want to buy any products from the river towns. Valenzuela went to the mine to ask for money to take the kids to Phoenix for tests. “The miners helped us and gave us a place to stay,” she recalls, but when they went to the mine’s director, José Juliçn Chavira, “they wouldn’t even talk with us.” She became one of the first residents of the planton.

Another was Laura Gutierrez. “Our town, San Rafael, is made up of farmers,” she explains. “We plant corn and peanuts, and we didn’t harvest anything last year. The crops were just thrown into the trash. Now we have nothing to live on. That’s why we’re here.” Farmers there and elsewhere along the river aren’t planting this spring because they fear the water is contaminated. So do customers for their crops.

“This was an extremely toxic brew that went into the river,” according to Garrett Brown, director of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Network, and former inspector for CalOSHA. “Lead causes serious and permanent damage to children. Cadmium is a known carcinogen. The spill deposited heavy metals along hundreds of miles, which wind up along riverbanks and leach into the aquifer. People eat the food that’s grown with water from the river and aquifers. That has long term implications for their health.”

Approximately 24,000 people live along the river. Three hundred wells were closed after the spill. Grupo Mexico’s website displays photos of pastoral scenes along the river and posts articles that describe its efforts to clean it up. It says the company has distributed 164 million liters of water, and installed 58 tanks of 5,500 gallons each in schools. The company set up a $150 million fund to pay damages to residents, and paid a fine of $2 million. 

Many river residents, however, say they haven’t received anything. “We didn’t go talk with the town people right after the spill, because many believed in the promises,” says Sergio Tolano, general secretary of Section 65. “But months later most saw they would get nothing, and were willing to take action.”

Sonora River Front

The purpose of the planton, he says, is not just to stop the mine’s operation. The union and residents have organized a coalition, the Sonora River Front. It is demanding that the government force Grupo Mexico to clean up the river and take responsibility for the health and lost income of residents. It also seeks to restore the strikers to their jobs.

Some elected officials recognize that their political future could be at stake if people vote against a government they perceive as too friendly to Grupo Mexico. Alfonso Durazo, a Federal deputy from the leftwing MORENA party, came to the planton to show support. When he tried to turn his speech into a campaign event for local candidates, however, an angry crowd told him to speak to their concerns, not his own.

“Because the miners are supporting us, we’re supporting them,” Valenzuela says. “If we all get together, we can do something here. The whole Rio Sonora is with them.” 

Solidarity from U.S. workers

Part of this effort also includes the U.S. union for copper miners, the United Steel Workers (USW). Manny Armenta, a USW representative, has helped the local union in Cananea since the strike started. The night the police broke the lines at the gate in 2010, he led families out of the union hall to safety. 

“You could smell the tear gas all over, ” he recalls. “It was like a military occupation.” At the march to the pumping station, Armenta spoke to the crowd. “The government and Grupo Mexico are making history,” he charged, “but backwards, taking away the right to strike and the right to industrial safety.”

The U.S. union is trying to renegotiate a contract with Grupo Mexico. As a result of buying ASARCO, the company is now the new owner of mines where the Steel Workers represents the miners. Two years ago the Mineros and the USW agreed to join to form a single union. The merger has not been completed, but they now support each other in dealing with their common employers, and look to the day when their bargaining can be coordinated.

Tolano credits this alliance with keeping the strike in Cananea alive. “Some of us have had a very hard time, but due to our tradition of supporting each other we’ve been able to take care of ourselves,” he says. “There have been divorces. Some people have lost their homes. But we’re still here.”

Photo: Miners from all over Mexico march in Cananea to support the strikers and farmers.


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.