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Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm: 'They treated us like slaves'

Scorpions and bedbugs. Constant hunger. No pay for months. Finally, a bold escape leads to a government raid, exposing deplorable conditions. But justice proves elusive.

Second of four stories

Workers gather at the Bioparques 4 labor camp after Mexican authorities raided it in June 2013. The government announced arrests and fines, promising to make an example of the agribusiness. (Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, state of Jalisco, Mexico)

Ricardo Martinez and Eugenia Santiago were desperate.

At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists.

Escape was tempting but risky. The compound was fenced with barbed wire and patrolled by bosses on all-terrain vehicles. If the couple got beyond the gates, local police could arrest them and bring them back. Then they would be stripped of their shoes.

Martinez, 28, and Santiago, 23, decided to chance it. Bioparques was one of Mexico's biggest tomato exporters, a supplier for Wal-Mart and major supermarket chains. But conditions at the company's Bioparques 4 camp had become unbearable.

They left their backpacks behind to avoid suspicion and walked out the main gate. As they approached the highway, a car screeched up. Four camp bosses jumped out. One waved a stick at them.

"You're trying to leave,'' he said, after spotting a change of clothing in a plastic bag Martinez was carrying.

"I'm just going for a walk," Martinez said.

"Get in the car or I'll break you," the boss replied.

The next day, Martinez and Santiago were back at work in the tomato fields.

When the mistreatment of workers at the camp was finally exposed, Mexican authorities made arrests, imposed fines and promised to make an example of the company. A year and a half later, however, the case of Bioparques speaks more to the impunity of Mexican agribusiness than to accountability.

Bioparques is emblematic of Mexico's agricultural miracle. Its owner, Eduardo De La Vega, has transformed the region around San Gabriel, south of Guadalajara, into an export powerhouse with 500 acres of greenhouses, a packing plant and an executive airstrip.

Two hundred seventy-five people were freed in the government raid on Bioparques 4. "They were totally captive, prisoners," a Mexican labor official said.
Two dozen of those freed in the government raid at Bioparques 4 were children. Many were malnourished, and the camp lacked a school. (Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, state of Jalisco, Mexico)

Able to harvest 10 months out of the year, the company grows tomatoes on a massive scale at the Bioparques mega-farm in San Gabriel and a second in the state of Sinaloa, Agricola La Primavera. It has sent as many as 6 million boxes of tomatoes a year to the U.S. from the two locations. They are sold under the Kaliroy brand name.

Wal-Mart was one of the biggest buyers of tomatoes from Bioparques. According to industry pricing surveys, Safeway and Albertsons have also stocked Kaliroy tomatoes. The surveys do not indicate which of De La Vega's farms supplied the two chains.

Beginning in 2007, the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank that assists businesses in developing countries, lent Bioparques $17 million to expand operations.

In 2009 and again a year later, the nonprofit Mexican Center for Philanthropy honored Bioparques as a "socially responsible company."

Independent food safety auditors and Wal-Mart inspectors visited the San Gabriel greenhouses and packing plant, certifying that the company met rigorous safety requirements.

Workers were drilled in the proper way to select, pick and handle tomatoes. They had to be light red, plump and shiny.

Laborers scrubbed their hands at disinfection stations every time they entered the greenhouse. If a tomato touched the ground, they discarded it. Jewelry was prohibited. Workers trimmed their fingernails to prevent even the slightest injury to the glistening beefsteaks and Romas.

"They told us these were of the highest quality, that what we picked would be going to the other side," said Gerardo Gonzalez, 18. "If the tomatoes were punctured or bruised in any way, they wouldn't be suitable for them."

"Kaliroy Fresh field workers are among the most progressive and efficient farmers in the world. They are the backbone of all company operations and partners in every success."

Company website

Wal-Mart says it has stopped buying produce from Bioparques. Above, Roma tomatoes in the U.S. retailer's San Marcos, Calif., store in May. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Bioparques has sent as many as 6 million boxes of tomatoes a year to the U.S. from its two mega-farms in Mexico. The produce is sold under the Kaliroy brand name. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Many of the company's "partners" were indigenous people from Huasteca, a mountainous region of subtropical heat and extreme poverty that covers parts of three central Mexican states: Hidalgo, San Luis Potosi and Veracruz.

Martinez and Santiago were among at least 100 peasants recruited in the spring of 2013 by a labor contractor for Bioparques. He touted jobs at the giant export farm: Workers would earn 100 pesos (about $8) a day. Meals would be free, along with housing and child care.

After a 550-mile bus ride, the laborers arrived at Bioparques. Their home for the next three months was the Bioparques 4 camp, managed for the company by the labor contractor.

It was nothing like the company's main labor compound, which had a school, day care and other amenities.

Bioparques 4 was out of sight, a treeless expanse of dirt and rock at the end of a long dirt road. In the cluster of brick buildings, people slept on floor mats in 12-by-12-foot rooms. Two families often occupied the same room.

Mothers fashioned cribs from netting to protect their babies from scorpions. They hung plastic tarps as partitions. Fights flared over the use of the one propane stove per room.

The camp had no playground or school for the dozens of children. Some followed their parents to work. Bernabe Pascuala's 13-year-old daughter insisted on it. "She wanted to come with us because there was no school," he said.

This account of conditions in the camp is based on interviews with 13 laborers who lived there that spring. The Times interviewed some in their home villages in Huasteca and others by phone. The paper also spoke to Mexican labor inspectors and Bioparques employees and visited the camp.

Felipe Hernandez, a 50-year-old father of seven who lived in Bioparques 4, said life there was tolerable at first. Picking tomatoes six days a week, he was happy to pocket a 100-peso receipt for each eight hours of work. But bosses soon changed to a quota system. Workers would have to fill a minimum of 60 buckets with tomatoes to earn the 100 pesos.

With the growing season ending and many vines already bare, Hernandez struggled to find enough tomatoes. He would fill 30 buckets, worth about $3, if he was lucky.

While younger workers with speedy hands earned extra pay to buy goods at the company store, older pickers went begging. Hernandez couldn't even afford soap.

"The kids were the ones with money, so I had to borrow from them," he said.

Watching his elders struggle pained Jorge Santiago de la Cruz, 26. "It wasn't fair because they came thinking that they would earn a decent wage," he said.

In the morning, workers were given a stack of tortillas for the day. Lunch and dinner consisted of watery soup, with occasional servings of beans and rice.

One day, the bosses slaughtered a pig and feasted on it. The next day, the laborers found bone bits and pork scraps in their soup. It would be their only taste of meat for weeks.

Children couldn't stomach the soup. It was too spicy. Milk and eggs — available only at inflated prices from the company store — were out of the question.

One day, a mother confronted a boss. She asked for more tortillas.

Ricardo Martinez, who was standing in the soup line behind the woman, recalled the boss' reaction.

"He told her she would only get a slap in the face," Martinez said. "Then an older man stepped in and said, 'Don't hit her, hit me.' "

Martinez said the boss knocked the man to the ground and beat him. "She just needed more for her kids. What they gave wasn't enough," Martinez said.

People too ill to work were put on the no-pay list. They couldn't get in the soup line unless they swept up around the camp.

Guillermo Martinez, 18, developed a rash and a hacking cough after a few days on the job as a pesticide sprayer. At least four other sprayers said they suffered the same symptoms.

When Martinez asked to see a doctor, a boss shrugged off the request, he said. "He told me, 'You don't need medicine. You're young.' "

Martinez said he wanted to escape but knew he would lose the wages he had earned. Bosses paid the workers in a lump sum at the end of their three-month contracts, a practice barred by Mexican law but common in the farm export sector.

"I thought, 'I've earned 2,500 pesos [about $200], and I don't want to lose it,' " Martinez said. "You keep thinking, 'I've worked so hard to earn it.' "

Workers would hatch escape plots as desperation gripped the camp.

"One señor told me, 'I know a good camp, in Colima. They give people good food there,' " recalled Jacinto Rivera Ramirez, 17. "I told him, 'I'm alone, and I don't know what will happen on the other side [of the fence]. I'm going to endure.' "

Mexican soldiers assist in the raid on Bioparques 4 in June 2013. Three people had managed to escape from the camp and notify authorities about the conditions there. (Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, state of Jalisco, Mexico)

Others were willing to risk it. The best time to try was in early morning, when only one boss roamed the grounds. People scaled the fence or crawled through narrow gaps at its base.

Some walked the 10 miles down the two-lane highway to the town of San Gabriel and knocked on church doors, begging for money. Most never made it that far.

Two young women spotted by a company guard just outside the front gate were dragged back inside. A boss had each one by the collar. They hung their heads, Guillermo Martinez said.

"I just want to go home,'' he recalled one woman crying out.

Bosses threw the women's backpacks in a storage room filled with confiscated belongings. They routinely took escapees' shoes and docked them three days' pay.

Sometimes, they went further. Fabian Bautista, 23, said he awoke one night to see an escapee being pummeled in his room.

On June 10, 2013, three people managed to escape. They hitchhiked 100 miles to Guadalajara, where they notified authorities. The next day, dozens of state and federal officials arrived at Bioparques.

Ricardo Martinez, who had resorted to rummaging through garbage cans for food, broke down when he saw police and soldiers pouring through the gates.

"To tell you the truth, I cried.... Everybody there was really sick," he said. "They treated us like slaves."

Two hundred seventy-five people had been trapped in the camp, including two dozen malnourished children.

At least one man had been tied to a tree and beaten by camp bosses, said Juan Ramirez Arrona, a director general of the state of Jalisco's Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare.

"They were totally captive, prisoners," Ramirez said in an interview.

After being freed from the Bioparques 4 camp in the government raid, laborers head home on buses arranged for by Mexican authorities. The legal case against the company has since stalled. (Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, state of Jalisco, Mexico)

Bioparques offered no comment to the Mexican media crews that descended on the camp that day. News coverage did not mention Wal-Mart or the World Bank.

The Jalisco attorney general's office arrested five people and charged them with human trafficking. Two were employees of Bioparques. The other three worked for Placido Garcia, the labor contractor who managed the camp. Garcia is being sought by authorities in connection with the raid.

State and federal labor officials ordered Bioparques to pay about $700,000 in penalties for violating health and labor laws.

More was at stake than fines and the fate of the individual defendants. Convictions for human trafficking would damage Bioparques' reputation and could imperil its ties to U.S. companies. Wal-Mart could face questions about its partnerships with Mexican exporters. The retail giant said it monitored labor conditions at its suppliers rigorously.

Jalisco's secretary of labor, Eduardo Almaguer Ramirez, said he wanted to turn his state into a national model of employer accountability and humane treatment of farm laborers.

This was provocative talk, and rare for Mexico. The country's big export farms have generated thousands of jobs. Their owners are wealthy and politically influential. Government officials have been loath to subject their operations to close scrutiny.

The case has stalled in Mexico's opaque judicial system.

A Bioparques spokeswoman, Minerva Gutierrez, said the two company employees charged with human trafficking have been exonerated by a judge.

Life in a labor camp »

The Jalisco state attorney general's office said it could not confirm this. It repeatedly declined to provide information on the status of the charges against any of the defendants.

As for the $700,000 in fines, Almaguer said Bioparques was still on the hook. But the company spokeswoman said that "the fines have been canceled" after Bioparques satisfied health and safety requirements.

Gutierrez blamed the "lamentable" conditions in Bioparques 4 on Garcia, the contractor. Efforts to contact him, including a visit to his home in Huasteca, were unsuccessful.

Gutierrez said laborers at Bioparques 4 are now paid weekly. Laborers who have worked there since the raid said they have access to a school and day care.

Wal-Mart says it stopped buying produce from Bioparques after the raid. Spokeswoman Jo Newbould said the action was based on Wal-Mart's own inquiry into labor conditions at the farm, an independent audit and the Mexican government's investigation.

Albertsons declined to comment.

Safeway said in a statement that it takes "any and all claims regarding worker conditions seriously" and was looking into the alleged abuses.

The World Bank said it has asked Bioparques to carry out a "corrective plan" that includes hiring a human resources specialist, educating laborers about their rights and hiring more social workers.

The bank has not withdrawn its financial support. Officials decided that the problems at Bioparques 4 were an aberration, said Cecilia Rabassa, chief investment officer for the bank's International Finance Corp.

"We decided to stay on investing with them," she said.

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 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.

Part 4: About 100,000 children under 14 pick crops for pay at small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, where child labor is illegal. Some of the produce they harvest reaches American consumers, helping to power an export boom.

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 Producer and Developer: Armand Emamdjomeh. Digital Design Director: Stephanie Ferrell.