Roberto Ortega tried to make a living slaughtering pigs in Veracruz, Mexico. “In my town, Las Choapas, after I killed a pig, I would cut it up to sell the meat,” he recalls. But in the late 1990s, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up Mexican markets to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods, Ortega and other small-scale butchers in Mexico were devastated by the drop in prices. “Whatever I could do to make money, I did,” Ortega explains. “But I could never make enough for us to survive.” In 1999 he came to the United States, where he again slaughtered pigs for a living. This time, though, he did it as a worker in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
His new employer? Smithfield—the same company whose imports helped to drive small butchers like him out of business in Mexico.
David Ceja, another immigrant from Veracruz who wound up in Tar Heel, recalls, “Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed, but then it wasn’t. Farm prices were always going down. We couldn’t pay for electricity, so we’d just use candles. Everyone was hurting almost all the time.”
Ceja remembers that his family had ten cows, as well as pigs and chickens, when he was growing up. Even then, he still had to work, and they sometimes went hungry. “But we could give milk to people who came asking for it. There were people even worse off than us,” he recalls.
In 1999, when Ceja was 18, he left his family’s farm in Martinez de la Torre, in northern Veracruz. His parents sold four cows and two hectares of land, and came up with enough money to get him to the border. There he found a coyote who took him across for $1,200. “I didn’t really want to leave, but I felt I had to,” he remembers. “I was afraid, but our need was so great.”
He arrived in Texas, still owing for the passage. “I couldn’t find work for three months. I was desperate,” he says. He feared the consequences if he couldn’t pay, and took whatever work he could find until he finally reached North Carolina. There friends helped him get a real job at Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse. “The boys I played with as a kid are all in the US,” he says. “I’d see many of them working in the plant.”
North Carolina became the number-one US destination for Veracruz’s displaced farmers. Many got jobs at Smithfield, and some, like Ortega and Ceja, helped lead the sixteen-year fight that finally brought in a union there. But they paid a high price. Asserting their rights also made them the targets of harsh immigration enforcement and a growing wave of hostility toward Mexicans in the American South.
The experience of Veracruz migrants reveals a close connection between US investment and trade deals in Mexico and the displacement and migration of its people. For nearly two decades, Smithfield has used NAFTA and the forces it unleashed to become the world’s largest packer and processor of hogs and pork. But the conditions in Veracruz that helped Smithfield make high profits plunged thousands of rural residents into poverty. Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines. “The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems,” Ceja says.
Smithfield Goes to Mexico—and Migrants Come Here
In 1993 Carroll Foods, a giant hog-raising corporation, partnered with a Mexican agribusiness enterprise to set up a huge pig farm known as Granjas Carroll de Mexico (GCM) in Veracruz’s Perote Valley. Smithfield, which had a longtime partnership with Carroll Foods, bought the company out in 1999.
By 2008 the Perote operation was sending close to a million pigs to slaughter every year—85 percent to Mexico City and the rest to surrounding Mexican states. Because of its location in the mountains above the city of Veracruz, Mexico’s largest port, the operation could easily receive imported corn for feed, which makes up two-thirds of the cost of raising hogs. NAFTA lifted the barriers on Smithfield’s ability to import feed. This gave it an enormous advantage over Mexican producers, as US corn, heavily subsidized by US farm bills, was much cheaper. “After NAFTA,” says Timothy Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, US corn “was priced 19 percent below the cost of production.”
But Smithfield didn’t just import feed into Mexico. NAFTA allowed it to import pork as well.As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56 percent. US pork exports are dominated by the largest companies. Wise estimates that Smithfield’s share of this export market is significantly greater than its 27 percent share of US production.
Imported pork had a dramatic effect on Mexican jobs. “We lost 4,000 pig farms,” Ramírez estimates, based on reports received by the confederation from its members. “On Mexican farms, each 100 animals produce five jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the five indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs in total.”
The increases in pork and corn imports were among many economic changes brought about by NAFTA and concurrent neoliberal reforms to the Mexican economy, such as ending land reform. Companies like Smithfield benefited from these changes, but poverty increasincreased also, especially in the countryside.
“That produces migration to the US or to Mexican cities,” Ramírez charges.
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