When Luz María Ortega Villa was growing up in Mexicali in the 1960s and ’70s, she remembers seeing unspoiled vistas of mountains in the distance.
To the west and south, the rugged peaks of the Sierra Cucapah towered over farmlands beyond the city. To the north stood the Chocolate Mountains in California.
This majestic backdrop began to fade into a smoggy haze in the mid-1980s as factories proliferated and the city’s population swelled. Mexicali has kept expanding ever since.
In her lifetime, maquiladoras have transformed what was once a farming town into an industrial city that is one of Mexico’s main manufacturing hubs on the border. Mexicali’s population has more than doubled since 1980 and is now about 750,000. Including other nearby towns and rural communities, the area is home to more than 1 million people.
Ortega, a professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California, has seen this transformation bring her city some of the worst air pollution in Mexico. On especially bad days, air-quality alerts describe the pollution as “unhealthy.”
The particles in the air are leading to high rates of asthma and deaths from respiratory illnesses.
“It’s very sad,” Ortega said. “As someone who was born here in Mexicali, it makes me feel very sad — and also mad, furious — to see that this is happening and there’s nobody putting the brakes on the environmental degradation.”
Mexican government agencies in the border region have failed to make fighting pollution a priority. Raw sewage regularly spills into the New River, which flows across the border into Calexico. The streets of Mexicali are filled with trucks belching exhaust. Brown clouds of smoke billow from factories.
An investigation by The Desert Sun found that Mexican government agencies aren’t doing enough to monitor pollution in Mexicali and that inadequate oversight of industrial plants is allowing pollution to continue unabated, endangering lives and public health. Both state and federal environmental regulatory agencies are perpetually underfunded and understaffed, and records show their enforcement efforts have been minimal.
The unchecked pollution has generated questions and debate in Mexicali and neighboring communities about whether looser environmental controls have helped attract the businesses that set up factories near the border.
Some experts who have studied the growth of maquiladoras say that weak oversight has made the border a pollution haven, and that just as companies have outsourced jobs across the border to cut costs, some have also chosen Mexico as a permissive zone for their polluting industries.
“U.S. companies have exploited the lax enforcement in Mexico of environmental rules, and the very low wages, to basically dump on the environment and on society their externalities, to put it in economics terms,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“As compared to operating in a way they can in the U.S. — to contain their hazardous waste and to contain air pollution and water pollution, and to pay people a living wage — they go to Mexico knowing they can basically exploit the environment, exploit people and avoid those costs,” Wallach said.
Lower wages have been the biggest factor leading companies to outsource jobs to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Wallach said, “but for some particularly heavily polluting industries, I’m sure the environmental costs are a higher factor.”