Hard Rock, Hard Times

Miners Are Still Getting The Shaft Across The Border In Cananea.

A BATTERED CHEVY suddenly careens across oncoming traffic, before rattling off along a rugged dirt road. Horns blare at the driver, who replies with a stubby fist out the window, an opaque ball of fury in a dense wall of dust.

More horn blasts and then silence, as we roll into Cananea on this sullen, gray afternoon. The blacktop glistens with heat, and cars cling together, bumper to bumper, fingers hard on the wheel, underscoring a murky tension that clings to everything in this Mexican copper town.

We sense it in the truckers queued for gas at Pemex, their faces grim behind bug-splattered windshields. We glimpse it in the pursed lips of a truck stop waitress, and in somber glances from the crumpled lady clomping down a side street, a tattered laundry bag dangling from one arm, a stumbling child hanging from the other.

Thick as summer sweat, worrisome as gathering monsoons, it's the collective jitters of a whole city waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Cantankerous by tradition, Cananea is called the cradle of the Mexican Revolution. Stretching up hillsides and streaming down through canyons, the Sonoran city southwest of Douglas is famous for its feisty history of labor unrest, from the furious 1906 fight that eventually sparked the national revolt, to a skirmish last winter that saw workers taking over the mine, followed by a retaliatory shutdown of city utilities by the mining company and occupation by federal troops.

The latest strike ended in February, but could hardly be called settled, with more than 700 miners issued pink slips, and most of their concerns -- including serious environmental, safety and pay issues -- shelved by Grupo Mexico, the huge conglomerate that owns the operation.

Many of the fired workers have since migrated north to the United States or deeper into Mexico seeking jobs. Others have remained, subsisting on marginal start-up businesses.

Grupo Mexico had called the walkout illegal, and threatened to break its contract with the union. The clash ended with a deal many observers consider a capitulation by leaders of the National Mine and Metal Workers Syndicate.

Six months later, we arrive in a town that's hemorrhaging both population and prosperity, where the union's once proud Local Sindicato 65 has been crushed, and where rumors circulate like a virus: The mine will be closed for good. Non-union workers will be brought in. And the mine's ever-rising tailings ponds -- toxic reservoirs barely restrained by aging dams -- are on the verge of spilling into a vast watershed feeding both the Sonora and San Pedro Rivers.

The first river quenches both Cananea and the thirsty Sonoran state capitol of Hermosillo to the west; the latter flows north into Arizona.

During the strike, Sindicato 65 sought support beyond the border, from an odd, ad hoc American coalition that included labor organizations, human rights groups and environmentalists. Today, that international camaraderie also is in shambles. While spokesmen for the AFL-CIO-affiliated Southern Arizona Labor Council laud connections that were made (the council donated everything from moral support to food and blankets for the cause), those ties remain fragile, with the Sindicato's leadership in question. "To tell you the truth," says one Arizona organizer, "right now we really don't know who we should be dealing with down there."

Environmentalists are no happier, as the crippled Sindicato abandoned its ecological stance after the strike, along with early supporters like Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity. Daniel Patterson was the center's point man on Cananea. "At this juncture, there's little that American activists can do about the mine," he says. "Maybe it is bad timing to raise these issues. But I certainly don't get the perspective now that environmental concerns are very high on the union's agenda."

Indeed, when asked about their current position on the mine's pollution problems, Manuel Romero, president of Local 65, says the union is working with environmental groups in Mexico -- such as the Boy Scouts -- to keep tabs on the situation.

Others like Victor Del Castillo, superintendent of environmental affairs for Grupo Mexico, downplay the danger of the tailing ponds, with their rising cocktail of cyanide, sulfates and other copper-leaching by-products. "The dams are still 8 meters above the water level," he says. "They are completely safe."

Still, constant build-up of the dams has been curtailed, at least temporarily, due to the slump in copper prices and production, he says. "But anyhow, the company will, in possibly one-and-a-half or two years at most, continue raising (the dams) to avoid water overflowing into the Rio Sonora."

Either way, "water in the tailings ponds is of very good quality," he says, "with most of the toxics being recovered in the copper concentrator plant." Castillo adds that "our regulation is stronger every day in accordance with NAFTA, because now Mexico is more or less the same, environmentally, as Canada and the United States."

That assertion raises eyebrows on this side of the border. "Sonora has been polluted by these mines for years," says Dick Kamp, director of the Bisbee-based Border Ecology Project. "But as always, the question is 'Who is going to fix it?' In this country, the basic game is that we know who's presumed responsible" for remediating a situation.

"But that's not the case in Mexico," he says, where several overlapping agencies can share responsibility, making it easier for each of them to pass the buck.

All of which doesn't bode well for the region's environment, just as the labor situation doesn't portend a bright future for Cananea residents.

Today, flanked by aides, Sindicato 65's Manuel Romero sits in a humid paneled room in the union's downtown Cananea headquarters. Out in the lobby, a looming charcoal mural depicts heroes of the Mexican Revolution, including its intellectual catalysts, brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón.

But inside the room, such heroes seem very far away, as Romero, a slender, handsome, middle-aged man with carefully groomed gray hair, explains in cautious words how the union is trying to revitalize. "Of course, there are still problems with the company," he says. "Right now we're trying to make adjustments on small things" like production bonuses and safety concerns.

The big things, he admits, will have to wait. "Obviously, we've lost a lot of workers," he says. "Many of them left for the United States or other parts of Mexico. But Cananea has a long history, and right now, we're very interested in looking towards the future."

Grupo Mexico and Mexican government officials reportedly were furious when the union sought support from North Americans during the strike. Very conscious of their image abroad, government leaders considered such airing of their sovereign dirty laundry a travesty, while Grupo Mexico apparently fired many of the workers in direct retaliation.

But just how enduring those costly international ties will be is questionable. And anger over the final settlement -- and how it was reached -- only complicates the delicate cross-border relationship.

"The question is whether the hearts of the (National Sindicato) leaders were in the right place, that they had first and foremost the interests of the workers at heart," says Tim Beaty, AFL-CIO representative for Mexico, from his office in Mexico City.

"From the side of the national (leadership) here, I'm told there were a number of legal obstacles (involving the walk-out). Had they been handled in a different way, they might have put the union in a stronger position. But as to tactical decisions on whether you retreat, or go full speed ahead and worry about being completely wiped out -- I've been in those kinds of situations, and I know they're difficult calls to make."

Either way, he says ties between North American workers and their Mexican counterparts will continue to grow. "What's clear -- and this is an example of it -- is people recognize more and more each day that when these rights are violated on one side of the border, they have an impact on the other side."

THE BUILDING CLOUDS have finally burst over Cananea, dumping torrents of rain on the town. As they clear, Oralia Lopez sweeps remaining debris from her walk, while her husband Arnulfo gazes out the front door. Their home is a stone's throw from the huge sprawling mine, where Arnulfo works as an engineer. He's among the lucky ones: he kept his job. Still, he's worried about the future for himself, his wife and their two teenaged children. The family intends to stay for a while, he says, but as for later, "Who knows? We're all a little scared."

Up the street, Francisco Villavicencio Vigilante fidgets behind the front desk in Cananea's museum, well-known for its documentation of local labor struggles. He's surrounded by mining relics: hammers, jacks, picks and pictures -- assorted memorabilia charting the mine's glory days, and the brutal 1906 strike. Detailed narratives recall how government snipers shot civilians from high window perches, and how Arizona Rangers entered the fray on behalf of Anaconda, the American company which then owned the mine.

Villavicencio points to a picture of Esteban Baca Calderon, whom he says "incited the revolution movement."

When asked about the latest strike, the old man peers from behind his glasses, smoothing down an eyebrow with wrinkled fingers. "In general, most people agreed with it," he says. "I personally supported it. But it's calm right now, and that's good.

"Of course," he adds, before turning away, "some people are still angry."

It's impossible to tell if the slight smirk crossing his face is ironic. Then he goes back inside his office, as storm water drains from the damp, troubled streets of Cananea.

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