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An estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay. Alejandrina, 12, wanted to be a teacher. Instead, she became a nomadic laborer, following the pepper harvest from farm to farm.
Last of four stories
Reporting from Teacapan, Mexico
Alejandrina Castillo swept back her long black hair and reached elbow-deep into the chile pepper plants. She palmed and plucked the fat serranos, dropping handful after tiny handful into a bucket.
The container filled rapidly. Alejandrina stopped well before the pepper pile reached the brim.
She was 12, and it was hard for her to lift a full 15-pound load.
One row over was her brother Fidel, 13, who couldn't keep up with her. He was daydreaming as usual. Their 10-year-old cousin, Jesus, was trying harder but falling behind too.
Alejandrina looked in the distance for the food truck. It was almost noon, five hours since she had a tortilla for breakfast. The sky was cloudless. It would be another 90-degree day in the palm-lined coastal farmland of southern Sinaloa.
"I wish I was home with my baby brother," she said.
Child labor has been largely eradicated at the giant agribusinesses that have fueled the boom in Mexican exports to the United States. But children pick crops at hundreds of small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, and some of the produce they harvest makes its way into American kitchens and markets.
The Times pieced together a picture of child labor on Mexican farms by interviewing growers, field bosses, brokers and wholesalers, and by observing children picking crops in the states of Sinaloa, Michoacan, Jalisco and Guanajuato.
Produce from farms that employ children reaches the United States through long chains of middlemen. A pepper picked by a child can change hands five or six times before reaching an American grocery store or salsa factory.
In Teacapan in Sinaloa, The Times watched Alejandrina and dozens of other children fill buckets and sacks with chile peppers. The farm where they were working supplies produce to a distributor in Arizona, which ships it to wholesale markets and other outlets across the U.S.
In Guanajuato, children were seen harvesting peppers at a farm whose produce eventually reaches a U.S. distribution hub in Texas.
Data on child labor are scarce; many growers and distributors will not talk about it. About 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay, according to estimates in a 2012 study by the World Bank and other international agencies. It is illegal to employ workers younger than 15.
The great majority of Mexican farm exports to the United States come from agro-industrial complexes. Pressure from big U.S. retailers and the Mexican government has driven child labor out of these operations over the last decade.
Elsewhere, it persists. Children work the fields throughout Mexico's agricultural export regions. They pick tomatillos in Baja California and Michoacan and tomatoes in Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi. They de-stem strawberries in Baja California Sur. They bag coffee beans and cut sugar cane in Veracruz and Chiapas.
The chile pepper harvest is especially dependent on underage workers. Long a staple for Mexico's indigenous population, chile peppers have grown increasingly popular in the U.S., flavoring ballpark nachos and happy-hour appetizers and serving as the main ingredient in hot sauces and salsa.
Pepper plants stand 3 feet high and yield chiles about 3 inches long, dimensions perfectly suited to child pickers.
Many of the peppers destined for the U.S. in summer come from Guanajuato, some from farms near the ranch of former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
While in office, Fox was criticized for the presence of children in the region's fields. When a Times reporter and photographer visited the area on a sweltering day in July 2013, there were 45 pickers at work in a pepper field about two miles from Fox's hacienda.
Half were children.
Alejandrina was one of them.
Every morning, she grabbed a water bottle and a bag of tortillas from her room in the abandoned home where she lived with her extended family. Then she climbed into the bed of a pickup and held the roll bar as the vehicle pitched and swayed down winding dirt roads.
Squeezed aboard were 30 other laborers. Alejandrina struggled through the tangle of arms and legs to peek outside. She liked feeling the wind on her face and gazing at girls her age walking down the road in their spotless skirts.
Alejandrina and her family were part of a crew of nomadic farm laborers who spent part of the summer of 2013 in Guanajuato, in the countryside southeast of Leon.
The Times tracked Alejandrina's travels over the following year, as she and her family traversed Mexico picking crops.
It was the only life she had known for years.
She was tall for her age — she would turn 12 in a month — and thin. Her arms were sinewy and her fingernails were perpetually crusted with dirt. She hadn't been inside a classroom in at least three years.
Her family was from the remote highlands of the southwestern state of Guerrero, among the poorest regions in North America. Her father had left for New York and had stopped sending money home after he became involved with another woman.
Her mother, Ermelinda, "used to cry with us and tell us why our father left us," Alejandrina said. "My mother used to tell us this story a lot."
Ermelinda, a stout woman with weary eyes, pulled her children out of school and headed north, joining thousands of other Mixtec Indians on the chile pepper trail.
They followed the harvest from village to village and farm to farm, traveling across central and northern Mexico in a loop that covered more than 1,000 miles. In winter, they would pick in the coastal cropland of southern Sinaloa. In spring, they'd drive southeast to Guanajuato, work for a few months and, in some years, head north to the Chihuahuan Desert.
By September, they'd be toiling in the tomatillo fields of Jalisco.
Then they would start the cycle over.
Leading them was their labor contractor, or mayordomo, a man from their indigenous village who lined up work for the 50 or so laborers who traveled with him.
Alejandrina slept on the bare floors of tumbledown shacks and farm outbuildings. She suffered headaches that lasted days, blaming them on the heat.
In the fields of Chihuahua, she watched out for scorpions. In Jalisco, she saw her pregnant Aunt Amalia keel over in a tomatillo field; the aunt later gave birth to a stillborn baby.
Snakes were a constant worry.
"My mother is afraid that my brother could get bitten by one of them and die," she said, referring to her baby brother, Sergio.
Tragedy seemed ever-present on the harvest trail. According to Mexican media reports and data gathered by a charitable group, at least 100 children of farm laborers have been killed or injured since 2010: crushed by tractors, stricken by disease, drowned in irrigation canals or, most frequently, thrown from buses or open-bed trucks, like the ones that carried Alejandrina and her family on 500-mile trips across Mexico.
On those journeys, Alejandrina would stand for 14 hours, squeezed with other laborers into a pickup piled high with their possessions. The tires were often bald. Some people would tie themselves to the truck to avoid spilling out the back.
Alejandrina's feet ached and she shivered at night from the cold. She never complained. She understood that when the crops had been picked in one place, it was time to move on. "If we stay, we will die of starvation," she said.
Every day was a different field but the same toil.
Sometimes Alejandrina's thoughts would drift to those school days long ago. She still remembered the names of the teachers who taught her the multiplication tables and how to write her name, and she still wore a bracelet given to her by her favorite schoolmate, Claudia.
She didn't make friends anymore. "It's like I make a friend someplace and I have to leave her behind," Alejandrina said in May as the family prepared to leave Sinaloa for Guanajuato. "When I come back, she will be mad at me because I left. So it is better for me not to have any friends."
She once dreamed of becoming a teacher. "I think that it's too late because … I failed myself, for not being in school," she said. "And school is very important, so you can be someone."
Now, her life was defined by the filth and dreariness of fieldwork. She said she could use some better shoes: "Here we suffer.... Here there is nothing but mud, all mud."
One day in July 2013, a truck carrying Alejandrina and other laborers drove through the pueblo of San Cristobal in Guanajuato and past Centro Fox, the former president's cultural center.
The month before, human rights activists had toured farms in the region and counted hundreds of child pickers. Embarrassed state officials vowed to impose fines on growers who employed children. But after the officials and activists left, children were back in the fields.
Alejandrina's destination that July day was a stretch of open fields where a local farmer raised chile peppers.
With slender fingers and frenzied but focused intensity, Alejandrina set the pace for the crew. When her bucket was about three-quarters full, she would empty it into one of the netted sacks she kept wrapped around her waist. Once a sack was full, it was half as tall as she was. An older boy would carry it to a nearby truck for her.
For each 60-pound sack, Alejandrina received a token worth about $2. She would stuff it in her pocket and start picking again.
While she worked, children too young to pick played naked in puddles. Babies wailed in the shade of trucks.
The grower provided no food or water. The child workers nibbled on tortillas and sipped from plastic bottles. They'd disappear behind rows of chiles to relieve themselves.
Alejandrina consistently outpaced her older brother, Fidel, averaging about $20 per day.
"Fidel doesn't pick much.... I don't know why," Ermelinda said.
When Alejandrina worked, the family ate better.
"She has to work," the mother said, "or there's not enough money to survive."
By the end of the day, the crew had filled 600 sacks with peppers, about 18 tons. The sacks sat high atop a truck destined for the wholesale produce market 15 miles away in Leon.
There, a broker named Jesus "Chuy" Velazquez counted the day's take and sent it off on a long-haul truck to the city of Monterrey, more than 300 miles away.
Brokers in Monterrey process and pack Guanajuato peppers before shipping some of them to McAllen, Texas, a hub for U.S. distributors.
Velazquez, interviewed at his loading dock in the Leon produce market, said that during the high season in May, he ships 135 tons of peppers per day to Monterrey. He said he also ships to a distributor in Tijuana, who he said supplies markets on the U.S. West Coast.
Asked about the role of child labor in the pepper fields, Velazquez said: "Honestly, I don't get involved. I leave it to the grower.
"The producer is in charge of the fields. I'm in charge of sales."
Child labor is common in the fields of southern Sinaloa, where Alejandrina worked the last three winters.
The Times watched her and dozens of other children harvest chile peppers at a mid-size farm in Teacapan, south of the resort city of Mazatlan, in December 2013.
The grower, Sergio Constantinos, said in an interview that he supplies chile peppers to La Costeña, one of Mexico's biggest salsa makers and a major exporter to the U.S. Constantinos said he also supplies several American brokers, including E.H. Maldonado & Co. in Nogales, Ariz.
Owner Emilio Maldonado said he sells Constantinos' chile peppers to repackers, who put them in 10-pound boxes and sell them to supermarket and restaurant chains across the country.
Constantinos initially denied that children picked on his farm.
When told that a Times reporter had seen children in his fields, he admitted that state inspectors had fined him $30,000 the year before for using child labor.
Constantinos then said that produce picked by children was separated at his processing plant and shipped only to Mexican customers.
Maldonado said that wouldn't excuse the use of child labor. "They shouldn't be using any kids, period," he said. "They say they control it, but they don't."
La Costeña said its supplier farms set their own labor standards. It declined to comment further.
Constantinos complained that he had been singled out unfairly by state inspectors. "If I kick out the kids, they just go work in other fields. There's no steady enforcement," he said.
He blamed the presence of children on the labor contractors who recruit and transport farm workers, often from Mexico's impoverished indigenous regions. The contractors say children have to work because farm wages are so low that parents can't earn enough to feed their families.
Big American retailers are vigilant about enforcing rules against child labor at farms that supply them directly. Keeping child workers out of the fields at widely scattered small- and mid-size farms has proved much harder.
In that fragmented, loosely regulated sector, brokers and distributors don't have the same leverage over farmers as a Wal-Mart or a Costco. Many distributors are small operations that lack the resources to monitor suppliers. Pervasive drug violence in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Michoacan makes site inspections risky.
Maldonado is one of the few mid-size brokers who visit their Mexican suppliers. He went to Teacapan this month to check on Constantinos' operation after learning that The Times had seen child pickers there. He said he saw none on that visit.
"He's improving. He's trying," he said of Constantinos.
There are fewer children working on Mexican farms than in the past, but the problem has not gone away, Maldonado said.
"It's sad to see a little kid working in the fields," he said. "I do tell the growers that these kids should be in school. And they tell me sometimes, 'Hey, Emilio, we tell them, but their parents want them to work, and the kids sometimes want to work.'"
Alejandrina liked to work in solitude, far from the other children. She didn't care for chitchat when she was picking.
On a hot day in September 2013, in a tomatillo field in Jalisco, her brother Fidel came close to where she was working. Too close.
Clearing the fields of plants, Fidel swung his machete wide and opened a gash at Alejandrina's right ankle. "I yelled to my mom and she came running, and my brother wanted to run away, but she hit him," Alejandrina recalled. She limped under a tree and pressed a soiled rag against the wound.
That night, in the empty house where they were staying in the city of Arandas, Ermelinda unwrapped the rag and dabbed away the dirt.
In the room next door, a mother and daughter were lying in bed with broken bones, their moans audible through the thin walls. Three weeks earlier, a truck carrying them and other laborers had flipped. One was killed.
As Alejandrina's mother cleaned her wound, the girl shut her eyes and flapped her hands in pain. Then she collapsed on the concrete floor and soon fell asleep. In a few months, she'd be in Sinaloa. After that, she'd return to Guanajuato to start another year on the chile pepper trail.
Don Bartletti contributed reporting to this article.
About this series: Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photojournalist Don Bartletti traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions and interviewing workers at some of the mega-farms that have powered the country's agricultural export boom.
Read the series:
Part 1: Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers. But for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
Part 2: A raid exposes brutal conditions at Bioparques, one of Mexico's biggest tomato exporters, which was a Wal-Mart supplier. But the effort to hold the grower accountable is looking more like a tale of impunity.
Part 3: The company store is supposed to be a lifeline for migrant farm laborers. But inflated prices drive people deep into debt. Many go home penniless, obliged to work off their debts at the next harvest.
Video: Behind the Series
Marosi and Bartletti explain what it took to get access to places that have long escaped outside scrutiny.
Video Credits: Creative Director: Liz O. Baylen. Editors: Spencer Bakalar, Liz O. Baylen, Bethany Mollenkof. Music: Colin Baylen, Nathan Doiev. Executive Producer: Mary Cooney.
Additional Credits: Digital Producers and Developers: Honest Charley Bodkin and Armand Emamdjomeh. Digital Design Director: Stephanie Ferrell.