Nogales, Mexico: A True Rags to Riches to Regrets Story

Alisa Hagen


On January 1st, 1994 The United States, Mexico, and Canada signed an agreement that would forever change the border between the United States and Mexico.  This agreement was designed to increase the labor force in Mexico, increase profitability of American companies, and decrease the cost of manufacturing goods by reducing or eliminating tariffs on exported items (USDA, 2012).  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to be a positive step for international commerce and individual prosperity.  Its goal was “to open markets of all types to outside investment by including special rules that insure outside investors a safe and attractive return on their money” (McCarty, 2007).  However, the reality is that while the corporate bottom lines increased, the living and working conditions and the environment of these exploited  manufacturing towns in Mexico have sunk to a depressing low.


            After the signing of NAFTA, a swarm of American-based companies made a beeline towards the border, hoping to get rich quick on cheap labor and few environmental restrictions.  Companies like Fisher Price, Pioneer Speakers, Samsonite Corporation, and General Electric Company, among many others, opened up maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants) in Baja, Sonora, Chihuahuah, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon (Corp Watch, 1999).  Development Corporation DAB promotes this maquiladoras system in Nogales (Sonora) by advertising “2,000,000 square feet of industrial space in our 5 industrial parks” (“About DAB,” 2012).  According to the executive directors of the Sonora Maquiladoras Association, this system “benefits both sides of the border…Mexico gets employment…American inventors reap profits” (Wagner, 2009).  Even the United States Government feels that a positive relationship exists, and describes Sonora as a “…relatively prosperous state with a well-developed middle class” (U.S. DOS, 2012).  However, countless reports of environmental dumping, long working hours, and low pay dominate news reports and interviews in and around Nogales.  Furthermore, the increased attention paid to U.S.-Mexico border communities due to immigration enforcement has brought more than just factories to this stressed environment.  The ongoing battle between enforcement agencies, the War on Drugs, and the immigrants stuck between has escalated countless times to violence, corruption, and broken dreams.

            This research paper will explore the changes that Nogales, Mexico has undergone in the past thirty years leading up to and after the implementation of NAFTA.  Despite the presence of foreign-based factories prior to the 1994 signing, there is little doubt that this arrangement has paved the way for negative collateral damage that has scarred both the faces of the land and those that occupy it.  Beginning with a brief look at an example of an American-born company that closed its doors to move south for cheap labor, this paper will then describe three main ways in which the maquiladoras system has directly altered Nogales, Mexico and similar communities.

The first is the living condition resultant of the thousands of poor Mexican laborers flocking to the border to work and strive to feed their families.  The second way is seen through environmental degradation of water supplies, food and air cleanliness, and toxic poisoning that is arguably the leading cause of cancer rates in and around factory towns.  The third and final way that Nogales, Mexico has been affected by this influx of people is seen in the behavior of the youth of Nogales, as the growing population (while young themselves) are unable to control their children, contributing to the juvenile delinquency and gang activity prevailing in the underground tunnel systems.  I will conclude with hopeful prospects that both American corporations and Mexican-based charitable organizations are working to increase base pay, decrease illegal drug trade, and improve the living conditions of those individuals taking advantage of the work.  Through it all, it seems that there is a consistently reiterated message: without these maquiladoras factories, thousands more would be unemployed.  However, the concern is that the only true beneficiaries are the companies increasing their profit lines when their employees see decline in their health and homes.  True, employment is one of the most powerful motivations for immigration.  Unfortunately, these companies are not doing all they could to improve the lives of those that, at the end of the day, they ultimately depend on.


Staplers: A Simple but Profitable History

            They can be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  They can be strong enough for mass industrial use.  They can be chromed out, automated, painted in any color of the rainbow, undeniably easy to use, and irrefutably necessary in every classroom, office, bank, and sales floor.  Often taken for granted yet reliably efficient, the stapler should be hailed as one of the best inventions mankind has seen.  Its humble origins in the states take us back to 1925, when Jacob Linsky, a Ukrainian immigrant, founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Company in New York City.  His first manufacturing company for this novel implement (no one else at the time packaged their staples by gluing them in rows), was built in 1931 in Long Island City, New York.  In 1939, Parrot Speed revolutionized the stapler design by inventing the top-loading feature that allowed users to open the unit and easily insert more staples. In 1956, the company’s name was changed to SWINGLINE.  Meanwhile, an entity called the American Tobacco Company[1] began acquiring a variety of smaller businesses including distilleries and office supply manufacturers.  In 1969, they were renamed American Brands, and in1970, Linsky sold SWINGLINE to them for approximately $210 million.  Finally, in 1987 this vastly successful corporation bid for ownership of ACCO World (a $6 billion Illinois-based conglomerate) for $603 million (“ACCO World Corporation,” 2012).  By agreeing to split up part of its now hugely dominating fastener production business, American Brands was able to bypass the U. S. Justice Department’s opposition to the merger.  American Brands, now parent company to ACCO World, was able to profit from ACCO’s international expansion that began in the 1970’s, reaching out to France, Germany, New Zealand, Nigeria, Brazil, and Australia (“ACCO World Corporation,” 2012).  Although American Brands (later changed to Fortune Brands) felt the economic decrease in 2000 and chose to remove ACCO World’s name from the market in order to ‘restructure’ operations, SWINGLINE and its products remain at the top of the fastener food chain.

Despite its humble origins and extraordinarily profitable lifespan, SWINGLINE’s story is not completely without its faults.  Just 10 years after its ACCO World assimilation, in 1997, the iconic Long Island City factory closes its doors, firing workers that have been there for decades.  Why? Companies will call it a smart move for profitability.  Employees holding pink slips blame NAFTA.  In reality, the company had closed its doors, moved south to Nogales, Mexico, and will reportedly save $12 million annually (Sheridan, 1997).  According to New York Daily News reporter Tom Robbins, “the move is spurred by concern over future profits, not current losses” (1997).  In other words, pressure from even cheaper Asian productions has inspired the jump in order to sustain their dominant position in the fastener market.  Once a rags to riches story of Ukrainian ingenuity harvested in American capitalism has taken a turn south along with jobs, benefits, and pride. 


Nogales, Mexico – Before and After NAFTA

            While occupied by natives for several hundred years prior to European “discovery,” the city of Nogales was officially founded in 1882 with hopes of direct trade between the United States and Mexico (United States Department of State, 2012).  Long before NAFTA’s implementation, the work force in Mexico sustained itself on land that community farmers owned, though this freedom was hard won.  The Mexican Revolution from 1910 through 1920 was very much centered on the desire for “land and liberty,” which made the farmers the victors when land was taken from the haciendo owners and distributed out for common ownership (McCarthy, 2007).  Understandably, this communal property ownership represented an enormous problem for outside corporations because they themselves were unable to purchase land. 

Then in 1965, the “Bracero” program was repealed.  This program originated during World War II, and it allowed farmers from Mexico to apply for temporary visas so that they could cross the border north and work for agricultural businesses while American laborers fought in the war (Babson, 2000; Delgado-Wise & Covarrubias, 2007).  Unfortunately, the elimination of this program meant that thousands of Mexican workers were now stuck at the border with no employment and thousands more were deported from the states due to Operation Wetback (Davidson, 2000).  The seemingly logical thing to do that would benefit both Mexico and the United States was to somehow drive business owners south to open up factories where the workers could legally retain jobs.  Thus, with the “Border Industrialization Program,” the maquiladora[2] system was born.  This event was further expedited by the 1980’s when the Mexican peso dropped so severely in value, that their labor market was now the cheapest in the world.  Then in 1992, the Mexican Constitution (supporting the communal ownership of property) was changed by President Salinas so that once-community land now became “private” land by individual members, meaning the areas could be bought and sold on a private market.  This de-nationalizing effort sweetened the deal for large corporations who wished to take advantage of the cheap labor.  With little effort and the 1994 signing of NAFTA, big business was able to move in and buy out many relatively uneducated farmers who received no further support from government subsidies (McCarty, 2007).  Davidson (2000) writes “after that, the race to the border was on…the number of maquiladoras grew spectacularly…the passage of NAFTA and another big peso collapse made the industry even more attractive to foreign corporations…by the end of the century, more than four thousand maquiladoras had been established in Mexico, almost one hundred of which were in Nogales” (10). 

Today, these factories produce such items as staplers, sunglasses, and car parts, and accounts for roughly 35,000 jobs (USDS, 2012).  This dependence on foreign manufacturing has created a convoluted relationship between the United States and Mexico, despite the allegedly peaceful nature that Nogales is “substantially better than any other border city of Mexico” (DAB 2012).  Reports contradict this assertion on several levels.  Furthermore, the United States did not completely fare well with this new economic policy either, though arguably the top echelon corporate executives are the clear exceptions.  By 1991 alone, the number of Mexican maquila workers increased about 16% (Friedman, 1992).  This increase, though supporting data is limited, is thought to be caused predominately by the relocation of American jobs.  Sheldon Friedman, an economist in Washington, DC writes that “U.S. workers displaced by NAFTA…have one of the weakest safety nets in the industrialized world…no national health insurance, inadequate unemployment benefits, limited help with training or job search assistance, and no public job created programs” (1992, p. 537).  Although this critique is twenty years old, the past few years have shown little improvement in social care throughout the country.  These conditions are very much alive decades later.  Those found in Mexico, however, appear to be much worse.

The Condition of Life in the Maquiladoras System

            Imagine trying to build a garden of flowers, with seeds of yellows, blues, greens, and vibrant purples, but constrict your layout to no larger than a shoe box.  What happens? Your flowers suffer.  The water is never enough, the nutrients deplete, and the beauty that once blossomed, wilts and dies.  Nogales, Mexico is too small, too poor, and too underdeveloped to support the population running towards it looking for work.  According to Corp Watch, the typical maquiladoras system can pay as low as $3.40 per day (1999).  Exacerbating matters, the Mexican government has a history of impeding progress for higher pay.  In the 1970’s, they eliminated some of the more restrictive labor laws, and even supported company’s collaborations to fix starting wages so that better paying businesses did not have an advantage (Davidson 2000).  In fact, an arrangement was made in 1981 between Mexico’s main official union (Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico) and 14 of the largest maquiladoras in Nogales that “allowed companies not only to hire and fire employees at will, but to change their hours, job assignments, and days off without notice…” (Davidson, 2000 p. 33).  Even worse, seldom were the workers able to complain or organize themselves to fight for better conditions because of something referred to as “whipsawing.”  This concept, though typically used to threaten American workers that their jobs could easily be lost to Mexico (in other words, be quiet and go back to work), is also used in maquiladora factories.  For example, Kopinak (1996) writes “even in Nogales, a border city with relatively low wages, non-union auto-parts workers report that complaints to supervisors elicit this all-too-common response: ‘they answered that we could complain all we wanted but that there was no other law than the maquila law and that no one can tell them anything, because if they do the plants will leave” (21).  As powerful as this threat was for many workers, this did not stop thousands of others to face unemployment over fear.  One study describes that the turnover rates for Nogales ranged as high as 180% (Moure-Eraso et. al, 1996).  Unfortunately, pride does not pay the bills and as a result, countless shanty-villages exist around factories.

            Due to extremely low wages and impractical transportation, many families working in Nogales came from southern Sonora and Sinaloa.  Davidson (2000), who conducted lengthy interviews with several community members, writes that “they lived, for the most part, as squatters in shacks constructed from tin, wood pallets, plastic sheets, and cardboard boxes salvaged from the factories and the dump…few had indoor plumbing; some had no water or electricity…crime, disease, and family breakdown were rampant in the squatters’ camps” (p. 11).  One case in particular follows the life of Yolanda, a single mother whose desperation and ingenuity allowed her to finally have something she always dreamt of: a home of her own.  When a small plot of land opened up that was not yet taken by another squatter, “Yolanda arrived with a water jug and a pick ax, set Bobbi [her infant daughter] down to play under a mesquite tree, and went to work chopping cactus and leveling the ground for her house…after a few days, she began staying on the land all the time, sleeping amid the snakes and scorpions on a bed she made for herself and Bobbi in a fold on the ground” (Davidson, 2000, p. 24).  Though she worked tirelessly at various maquiladoras factories, she eventually was able to build on to her make-shift house and rent out small rooms to other workers.  Her story, unfortunately, is not unique. 

            Corp Watch breaks down the typical financial situation of maquila workers using the average cost of expenses and the average wage based on geographic areas.  In short, an individual’s net pay will be around $55.77, and their cost of living (food, rent, electricity if they have it, etc.) comes in around $54.00 (Corp Watch, 1999).  This incredibly close expenditure list leaves very little room for medical expenses, clothing, and any type of enjoyable entertainment.  To make matters worse, the fees listed are for only a two-person household with one income; many families who live off the checks for factory work have multiple children, often as a result of limited medical care and birth control options.  This is perhaps why women at extremely young ages seek employment in factories, even going as far as falsifying documents to legally work at 16 while in fact they are much younger.

            The economic payout for maquiladoras factories clearly and disproportionately benefits large corporations, placing them in a vastly advantaged position over their workers.  Friedman (1992) points out that “the U.S.-Mexico border runs astride the longest boundary on the planet between a first- and third-world nation” (p. 535-536).  This blatant imbalance of funds comes as a direct result of big business’ influence on international policy.  In other words, “‘globalization’ is not the spontaneous expression of market forces so often invoked by free-trade proponents, but is rather a product of public policy aligned – more often than not – with corporate planning” (Babson, 2000, p. 15).  NAFTA tried to achieve a world that permitted fair and free trade.  What it did, however, was allow the powerful to cash in on the weak.  Mexico, though employing thousands of additional laborers, is on the losing end.  By exporting more and producing less affordable items for their own people, the government is actually losing money.  Specifically, Delgado-Wise and Covarrubias (2007) writes that “Mexico has been running a trade deficit since the onset of NAFTA; in 2005, for example, it totaled US $7.558 billion” (p. 663).  This means that they are shipping more out, paying themselves less, and making the very items they manufacture too expensive for their own citizens to buy.


Environmental Damages and Poor Health

            As with many factories, outputs of toxic waste, smoke, leaked chemicals, and ill-advised dumping are often precursors to environmental damage, cancer, and birth defects. The United States, though plagued with numerous failures of its own, does instill restrictions and subsequent penalties on companies that fail to adhere to safety standards.  Mexico has arguably lax laws that allow their maquiladoras factories to treat their surrounding environment with little concern.  Corp Watch cites multiple offenses including water, air, and ground damage that exceed EPA’s recommended levels.  Before NAFTA was implemented, Mexico made extremely poor decisions regarding the safety of their environment.  Velazquez et. al, (2006) summarize that “maquiladoras were stereotyped by environmental irresponsibility…they used to take advantage of lack of environmental regulations and enforcement to use toxic raw materials, generate hazardous waste, and dump wastes clandestinely polluting air and water” (p. 480).  Other sources refer to Mexico as simply a repository for American waste.  In Miriam Davidson’s novel Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Border, she describes several accounts of suspicious cancer zones that seem to have a strong correlation with the surrounding contamination found in the towns.  She writes that “the first sign of widespread industrial contamination of the Nogales Wash came in 1986, when the Arizona Department of Health Services found high levels of toxins including trichloroethane[3], tetrachloroethane[4] (PCE), chloroform, and trichloroethylene[5] (TCE) in the water” (p. 56).  Unfortunately, it was formally brought to the attention of health services only when dangerous toxins were found on the U.S. side, but not as effectively investigated or publicly announced on the Mexican side.  This led to countless birth defects, miscarriages, and in Nogales roughly 2 ½ times the expected number of myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer (Davidson, 2000).

Immediate effects on workers in factories vary in degree of seriousness and proliferation.  However, one study cites multiple side effects depending on which type of industry the worker was employed in.  For example, textile mills may produce “pulmonary and eye problems, dermatitis, hand injuries, and musculoskeletal disorders” (Guendelman & Silberg, 1993).  Others include vision loss, headaches, and poor pregnancy for electric workers.  While these may not be as deadly as the cancer zones, they still represent the lack of health care awareness that plagues maquiladoras work.

            Although not its official purpose, NAFTA could still be able to help establish regulations that would bring maquiladoras factories into check and hold them responsible for their action or inaction.  Beginning in 1994, both Mexican and American governments worked to educate their citizens about possible pollutants in their areas and establish grant money for research.  In Nogales, several maquiladoras “…started working with authorities in Arizona to institute pollution prevention programs and to reduce their use of toxins in manufacturing” (Davidson, 2000, p. 72).  Unfortunately, not enough change occurred as fast as it was needed.  Corp Watch quotes a SCERP report from 1999 that reads: “…all streams and rivers in the border region have suffered deterioration of water quality due to the lack of adequate municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems” (Corp Watch, 2012).  Another example was found in a 1997 study that revealed “…infants born to the garment workers had significantly lower birthweights…” (Moure-Eraso et. al, 1997, p. 588). 

Furthermore, birth rates and disorders often take generations to present themselves as children growing up around pollutants may not have offspring of their own for another 10 to 15 years later.  Clearly additional attention needs to be paid because undisclosed pollution may not be investigated until it is too late.


Juvenile Delinquency on the Border

            The most unfortunate damage caused by a poor economy and low wages is the lack of support needed to raise children.  Many of the young women employed in factories have children of their own who raise themselves because their parents need to work multiple jobs just to get by.  As in most environments, children often experiment with drugs, sex, and criminal behavior either as a means to survive or simply out of a lack of better options.  Maquiladoras systems present an even greater challenge because of the proximity to U.S. soil, often accessible via tunnel systems.  This underground world has bred thousands of young individuals who find a life of delinquent behavior to be their only choice.  Davidson (2000) describes the increase in tunnel use after the 1990’s boom in Border Patrol activity, eliminating above-ground transit by coyotes or people-smugglers.  When they moved below the surface, “…they encountered another sad consequence of the maquiladora boom: a gang of homeless children” (118). 

            Referring to themselves as the Barrio Libre Sur (Free Neighborhood of the South), these youths range in age from four to nineteen and ultimately use violence and intimidation to survive this ‘brutal business.’  Davidson (2000) writes about how bribing the members was often the only way for smugglers, agents, and tourists in the tunnels to attain passage, and says that “depending on their mood or their relationship with the smugglers, the kids let some go for only fifty dollars…others who lacked proper credentials or respect were beaten senseless and robbed of everything they had” (Ibid, 119).  Unfortunately, this behavior is often the result of early abuse and a relatively rough life above ground.  Many of the cases that Davidson describe involve sexual abuse by family and other gang members, starvation on the street, or a general lack of parental support because the family structure is greatly affected by the maquiladoras factory life.  McCarty (2007, p. 109) writes that “it is…common to travel through rural villages and never see a male between the ages of 15 and 60 years old.”  This leaves many households in the hands of females, who they themselves struggle in the factory system.  Taylor (2010, p. 360) argues that “the patriarchal state and capitalism have reinserted women in a space where they have lost citizenship and where their bodies have become abject objects for the benefit of globalized industrial production.”  Whether it is the father, mother, or both that is not available to guide their children, the result is strikingly similar.  The youth that inhabit the tunnel systems are a part of the cyclical world that forces them to choose either harsh factory work or outcast inhabitation of underground life.  Either way, poor medical treatment and birth control options perpetuate the high frequency of teenage mothers and homeless children.        


Future Hope

            Due to pressure on the Mexican government and American companies by unions and civil rights groups in Nogales, many corporations have attempted to increase the benefits of the maquiladoras system.  Though arguably insufficient, “companies…contribute to a government system that provides health care, housing subsidies and other services for workers” (Wagner 2009).  Also, groups like LIFE (Life Is For Everyone) and the Esperanza Foundation have fought for medical research on toxin levels and down payments for homes to improve the quality of life in Nogales (Davidson, 2000).   However, the increase in Border Patrol militarization, especially after 9/11, has made living around the border difficult for both crossing immigrants and their families.  Although not all activity around the border is illegal, the attention paid to drug smuggling and illegal transportation of Mexicans to the American border has raised levels of suspicion and tension, resulting in tripled the amounts of deaths (MacCarty, 2007).  Those suffering in Mexico, try to reach American resources at hefty costs.  For example, an interview with a female in her early 20’s, revealed that she tried multiple times to get a visa to the United States to get her mom medicine.  After failing to receive one, she illegally tried to cross the border in 2006, and almost died lost in the desert.  Border Patrol picked her up and processed her so that next time, she will go to federal prison.  However, she said “‘You don’t understand the situations I’m in here,’ then looked away and started to cry” (MacCarty, 2007, p. 113).  The maquiladoras system, though slightly improving, has a long way to go before living conditions and hope for a better way of life increase to sufficient levels.



            When the United States and Mexico signed NAFTA in 1994, there was hope that both economies would benefit from it.  At face value, the Mexican work force would increase labor and employment and the American public would benefit from their own successful corporations.  However, the maquiladoras system was both in place prior to NAFTA and is still going strong after it due to a mentality revolving purely around profit.  Big business has expanded south because they can pay a person less, sell their product more, and perhaps dump a few hundred gallons of toxic waste outside someone else’s home.  We all purchase these items, from cars to phones to the all-powerful stapler.  Yet, seldom do we think about or are even aware of the lifestyles that factory workers have as a direct result of companies outsourcing their labor.  Unless we were laid off because our employer shut their doors, the origins of our sunglasses and children’s toys are irrelevant.  This research has shed light on one city in Mexico in particular, whose existence, albeit intentionally to increase trade, will never be the same.  Ironically, even the thousands of jobs in Mexico created by maquiladoras are in danger as several Asian companies are now promoting even cheaper labor, a much appealing temptation for greedy businesses. With time, hopefully stricter government regulations and more powerful unions can fight to decrease the imbalanced conditions caused by low wages and inexcusable working hazards regardless of the country. 


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Taylor, G. (2010). The abject bodies of the maquiladora female workers on a globalized border. Race, Gender, & Class, 17 (3-4). 349-363.

United States Department of State, Consulate General of the United States. (2012). History of Nogales. Retrieved from http://www.nogales.usconsulate.gove/nogales_history.html 

Velazquez, L., Munguia, N., Navarrete, M., & Zavala, A. (2006). An overview of sustainability practices at the maquiladora industry in Mexico. Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 17 (4). 478-489. 

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[1] In 1890, the American Tobacco Company (ATC) was founded by James “Buck” Duke (son of Washington Duke of Duke University).  Through shrewd business tactics, Duke brought ATC to the forefront of the tobacco industry until the ‘trust-busting’ era eliminated its supremacy.  

[2] A maquiladora system “is the Mexican name for manufacturing operations in a free trade zone, where factories import material and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly, processing, or manufacturing and then export the assembled, processed, and/or manufactured products, something back to the raw materials’ country of origin.”  

[3] Trichloroethane is a “clolourless, sweet-smelling liquid that was once produced industrially in large quantities for use as a solvent…[it] does act as a central nervous system depressant and can cause effects similar to those of intoxication, including dizziness, confusion, and in sufficiently high concentrations, unconsciousness and death.”,1,1-Trichloroethane#Safety.  

[4] Tetrachloroethane is a solvent where “chronic inhalation exposure in humans results in jaundice and an enlarged liver, headaches, tremors, dizziness, numbness, and drowsiness…”,1,2,2-Tetrachloroethane.  

[5] TCE, “an industrial solvent and degreasing agent” that causes known effects to the nervous and cardiovascular systems (Rosoff, Pontell, & Tillman 2010) once again hit the news when allegations of soil and groundwater contamination emerged beneath SWINGLINE’s factory in Queens.