The Spill on the Río Sonora

The story of Mexico’s miners and their struggle for dignity and justice.

The Sonora River in 2014. Regeneración

In 1906, mineworkers in northern Mexico walked off the job at the Cananea Copper Company to protest their labor conditions. William Cornell Greene of Chappaqua, New York, the mine’s new owner and one of the richest men in the world, didn’t like it. He wasted no time sending down the Arizona Rangers, who brutally suppressed the strike, murdering twenty-three workers in the process.

Four years later, with the Mexican Revolution spreading like wildfire across the countryside, people often repeated the story of the miners’ resistance and martyrdom as inspiration for their struggle.

In 2006, sixty-five workers were trapped underground following an explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine owned by Grupo México (GM), the third largest copper conglomerate in the world. The rescue attempts were arguably insufficient and inarguably unsuccessful, and a whole nation followed in real time as the miners slowly died.

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, head of the Sindicato de Mineros — Mineros for short — accused Mexican President Vicente Fox of “industrial homicide” and became a national voice of protest against the right-wing administration. He was immediately hit with trumped-up fraud charges and fled to Canada, where he still lives in exile under the political umbrage of the Steelworkers Union.

A century divides the two events, but it’s telling how far fewer know of the struggle and sacrifice of this generation of Mineros.

The Mistake

On the morning of August 6, 2014, a bull suddenly keeled over and died while drinking water from the Bacanuchi River. Soon after, as one resident told journalist David Bacon, even the Gila monsters and coyotes were running as far away as they could.

Two days later, with locals’ fingernails already falling off, Grupo México finally spoke up. The country’s largest mining company admitted that a mistake had been made at its open-pit copper mine just outside of Cananea, an isolated town of twenty thousand in northern Mexico’s rural, high desert.

That mistake, it turned out, released forty thousand cubic meters of copper sulfate into the Tinajas River, which, along with the Bacanuchi, forms part of the mighty Río Sonora’s watershed. Notably, GM failed to acknowledge that the error had been made by under-trained and overworked contractors, bussed in to break a long and bitter strike over the same safety provisions that allowed the spill to happen. Maybe GM didn’t need to admit this: anyone familiar with the region’s history already knew it.

The Pancho de Conchos spill was the worst mining disaster in Mexican history. With little information about the environmental impact or clean-up efforts — but with new reports of health problems pouring in every day — the striking miners of Mineros Local 65 went out into the river towns to support affected families. They also demanded that the government hold GM accountable for the spill.

These workers — who depend on the most extractive of industries for their livelihood and are not known for their sympathy with environmental causes — quickly became active in a transnational movement for climate justice.

The Long History

Mexico’s mines have long been violent sites of contestation, brutally fought over by capital and political interests on both sides of the border.

In 1890, the country’s despotic leader General Porfirio Díaz granted concessions and provided military support for the Guggenheim family to create the Great National Mexican Smelting Company. The family’s footprint grew, and, in 1901, it purchased the Tucson-based giant ASARCO, which William Rockefeller and several of his Standard Oil associates had founded in 1888. The Cananea copper mine belonged to the ASARCO portfolio.

The unholy alliance between Díaz’s political circle and American captains of industry — who many citizens rightfully believed were robbing the country of its wealth — helped spark the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The fighting dragged on for a decade, killing perhaps as much as 10 percent of the country’s 15 million people. Revolutionaries finally deposed Díaz and his cronies, and the period after 1920 saw real democratic and social reforms, in many cases led by labor unions.

Of course, the revolution did not produce a socialist paradise. Less than a decade later, capital and elite interests had regrouped. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which would go on to govern the country for seventy uninterrupted years in the spirit of “institutional revolution,” — increasingly reflected this political regroupment.

These right-wing forces continued to consolidate power, and by the 1950s Mexico had its own version of McCarthyism. During this period, the government began to crack down heavily on labor unions, many of which had formed in the 1930s as radical left organizations. Eventually, the PRI brought them under its control through the state-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

The Mineros, founded in 1934, proved one of the hardest to tame, largely thanks to the miners’ history of political militancy. Incidentally, it was the current president’s father, Napoleón Gómez Sada, who was successfully installed by the PRI in 1961 to at least partially muzzle the union’s radicalism.

Over the following decades, mine ownership continually passed between Mexican elites and American capital. Following a series of partial and complex nationalizations and subsequent reversals in the 1960s, ASARCO took control of the Cananea mine. The American corporation was allowed to keep a 49 percent ownership stake and sold the rest to the state and private Mexican capital. Part of this latter group then created Asarco Mexicana — renamed Grupo México in 1978.

The new company soon intensified production, boosted first by technological innovation and then by Mexico’s insertion into the world economy as an export platform.

In 1994, NAFTA created a massive trilateral trade bloc linking the Canadian, American, and Mexican economies — and with them around 25 percent of global GDP. The agreement freed capital flows across the nations’ borders and legitimized a political logic that prioritizes corporate profit over people and the planet.

GM, now the property of the fabulously rich Larrea family, celebrated by purchasing its parent company ASARCO and the now-famous Cananea mine, whose Mineros Local 65 remained a lonely bastion of resistance.

Shortly after, as extraction efforts expanded rapidly in the face of ever-weaker restraints, Local 65 called a strike to protest health and safety conditions. The company petitioned the government to break the strike and laid off eight hundred workers. It mounted a campaign against labor leaders and those it perceived as agitators. It also closed the local hospital, which had served miners’ families for generations.

In 2001, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia succeeded his father and decided to allow these conflicts to intensify.

The Long Strike

On February 19, 2006, at 2:30 in the morning — when nobody would have been working if not for the basic capitalist drive to extract more and more resources to make more and more money — an explosion shook the Pasta de Conchos mine.

Several of the miners had reported a methane leak to management in the previous weeks. Nearly all knew that something was eventually bound to happen.

The sixty-five workers were trapped just three hundred meters underground. (For the sake of comparison, the Chilean miners famously saved in 2010 were at 2,300 meters.) Nevertheless, efforts to save the miners were called off after just five days, even as experts insisted that the workers could still be alive. In the end, only two bodies were recovered.

Under Urrutia’s leadership, the Mineros union had taken an increasingly radical and oppositional position toward Grupo México, launching a series of strikes in the years before the explosion. It had also become more active in international solidarity politics.

The Mineros affiliated with the international trade federation that in 2012 would become IndustriALL, a global union that represents fifty million workers in 140 countries. It also formed a strategic relationship with the United Steelworkers and began supporting organizing campaigns throughout North America.

The Pasta de Conchos tragedy made headlines across the world, and, considering the miners’ political profile, it was natural that they should take the lead in decrying the incident and calling for the government to hold its perpetrators accountable. To increase pressure, the Mineros leaned on the international network it had built.

In 2007, it invited a delegation from the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network to the mine to conduct a study of its health and safety conditions. Even after the explosion, the observers noted that the company was continuing to dismantle ventilation systems in the granite-crushing facility to punish workers for past labor activism.

The network’s director, Garrett Brown, described walking through knee-deep dust, unable to see more than ten meters in front of him. The next year, the network went to Mexico City to present its findings, which included pulmonary reports that showed dangerously high levels of silica. The labor ministry granted them a meeting but promptly told them, in so many words, that this was Mexican business and they had better keep their gringo hands off it.

By then, the Mineros had called another strike, citing the same health and safety issues that led to the explosion. In 2010, GM executives convinced President Felipe Calderón to declare the strike illegal, a necessary legal step before the company could replace union members with scabs.

Striking workers in Mexico customarily occupy their workplace, so Calderón decided to send three thousand federal police officers to physically remove the miners. This gratuitous eviction demonstrated the right-wing government’s delight at the possibility of muzzling one of the country’s few remaining independent unions once and for all.

Shortly thereafter, GM reopened the mine, using contracted labor supported by the thoroughly corrupt CTM and run by the newly created GM-subsidiary Buenavista del Cobre. Local 65 miners remained on strike, continuing to highlight the company’s dangerous practices. They also continued to deepen their solidarity work, not only internationally but also with other exploited workers in Mexico.

For example, between 2011 and 2013, Local 65 worked with the Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO) in Ciudad Acuña. There, the two organizations went house to house to convince more than two thousand workers to join an independent union. The government had banned labor organizing outside the CTM, and Finnish autoparts company PKC had a terrible reputation for its treatment of workers. The support the miners gave and received helped sustain their spirit.

However, unemployment took its toll. Mexico’s unfavorable position in the global economy, combined with the downward pressures placed on it by NAFTA’s pro-corporate agenda, had depressed wages and made jobs more dangerous and exploitative throughout much of the country, especially its northern regions. Meanwhile, cheap American corn flooded the market, reducing communities’ ability to produce their own food and leaving them more reliant on wage labor. All of these developments made Mexican workers more vulnerable to the whims of companies like GM.

Young people began to leave, especially for the United States. This NAFTA-driven displacement fractured communities and produced the kind of immigration that American politicians shamelessly demonize. Life got harder and harder for those who stayed.

The Spill and Everything After

Open-pit mining involves blowing rock out of a quarry, then crushing it and leaching it of its valuable metals using acids. The leftover liquid is then deposited into enormously toxic holding ponds.

In the years leading up to the spill, GM accelerated its extraction rates, even as the unionized workers remained on strike. Speeding up production meant creating dozens of new holding ponds around the mine, all under the watch of the low-wage contractors brought in to replace the Local 65 members.

During heavy rains, a pipe slippage allowed one of the newer holding ponds to overflow. Ten million gallons of sulfuric acid sludge flowed out before anyone noticed.

While the government is supposed to subject these ponds to careful regulation, GM had made serious work of avoiding the rules, relying on a combination of the Larrea family’s political clout, the Mexican government’s neoliberal orientation, and NAFTA’s environmental measures’ utter unenforceability. Just a few months prior, however, the law caught up with it: Mexico’s federal attorney for environmental protection fined the company fifty-five million pesos for irregularities related to its management of the ponds.

The spill took place on August 6, but GM did not report the incident to authorities until August 8. When they finally did, they minimized its extent and attempted to distance the company from the disaster, blaming its subcontractors — the very people it had brought in to undermine its own workers and to discredit their complaints about the company’s unsafe labor practices.

Meanwhile, the Mineros jumped into action, spreading information about the leak to the small towns lining the two rivers. It set up emergency clinics and distributed bottled water and safe food. The union also began to publicly demand a full federal investigation and reparations from GM. Throughout this process, they sought support from the broad network they had developed over their years of political struggle.

The CFO arrived to support the miners and their communities. The Steelworkers Union sent a delegation to draw international attention to the disaster and subsequently joined the miners and other community groups to create the binational Frente Río Sonora, an organization devoted to improving the river’s health.

Meanwhile, the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network sent down a second delegation to measure the contamination’s effects. The Canadian Steelworkers, still supporting the exiled Urrutia, joined the efforts as well.

Labor journalist David Bacon wrote in-depth articles that appeared in prominent periodicals including Al-Jazeera and The American Prospect, bringing the story to an even broader audience.

This rapidly assembled coalition based its demands on the conversations the Mineros had with the surrounding river communities. They wanted a full and immediate clean up coordinated by GM and the federal government, reparations for the affected communities, and an agreement with the Mineros to end their strike.

It soon became clear that neither capital nor the state would meet these demands. The clean-up efforts stopped short, even while new health problems emerged on a daily basis. The government distributed limited reparations that could not defray the spill’s costs. Many complained that the government favored the wealthier farmers’ lost profits — a cruel reminder of NAFTA’s nefarious investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, which explicitly prioritize business profitability over all else.

And of course, neither the government nor GM would give in to the Mineros’s demands for improved labor, health, and safety standards, no matter what disaster their carelessness might cause next.

Despite this, the coalition, including the miners and the entire community that supports them, continues to fight.

Miners for Climate Justice

In the spill’s aftermath, the Mineros began organizing around issues of climate justice. The transition was natural: they had repeatedly gone on strike over health and safety concerns, a form of environmental activism applied to the workplace.

Witnessing their fears literally spill out into their community — where their children play and their neighbors draw water for washing clothes and for growing crops — created a natural connective tissue between the two struggles.

Furthermore, the miners had long understood that the mine’s ever-accelerating production rates — which forced sixty-five of their comrades to be working when the 2006 explosion occurred — served only a handful of rich businessmen. Many miners demanded not only enhanced union rights but also worker control of the mine. Control would mean the miners could slow production and allow the mine to serve the community’s needs rather than focus on producing excess profit for outside interests. It would mean less haphazard and less dangerous protocols that aligned with the surrounding environment.

The miners immediately felt a sense of solidarity and responsibility. Any notion that they would find environmental work in contradiction with their working interests or culture paled beside the violence they witnessed from Grupo México’s ravenously unsafe practices.

In 2015, the Mineros began participating in a series of tri-national Labor Gatherings co-hosted by the UCLA Labor Center and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office (where I work). These meetings brought together independent unions and community organizations from across Mexico, the United States, and Canada to plan collaborative actions. The Canadian Steelworkers hosted the December 2016 gathering in Toronto, giving several Mineros members the chance to meet with Urrutia in person.

These tri-national meetings have sparked the occasional culture clash. Sometimes, women have interrupted long speeches by men to organize breakout caucuses on gender dynamics.

CFO Director Julia Quiñones describes how, after spending a year working closely with the Mineros on its organizing campaign, she and her colleagues demanded that the miners’ union pay greater attention to gender issues. The leadership reluctantly agreed.

From there, CFO organized women’s groups focused on mutual support and professional development. These groups continue to this day, having helped over one hundred women take on greater responsibility and more leadership positions within the Mineros.

These cultural clashes do not portend irreconcilable conflict. Rather, they’re symptomatic of respective strengths of character — and occasional bull-headedness — forged in different communities with distinct histories of struggle. Thought about in this way, they become opportunities for cross-pollination and solidarity.

The Mineros has become a stronger organization thanks to these interventions, and the climate-justice and community groups they now work with have had to the opportunity to learn from a union that has watched its members die and its community be poisoned, all the while sustaining a decade-long strike for dignity.

The Mineros have practiced nontraditional organizing methods, and climate justice groups seem to have developed a more nuanced understanding of extractive workers’ political commitments. Both sides grow closer and more empathetic toward the other.

The progressive community tends to make assumptions about the challenges ahead that ironically impede our collective progress. As we watch the clouds of the climate crisis gather and emphasize the need for a labor–climate justice coalition, we often exaggerate what it will take to put these politics in motion. These hyperboles — alongside our self-reinforcing culture of defeat as well as the overwhelming nature of the task at hand — actually make it harder to forge the alliances we need.

The Mineros story, however, gives us a new perspective. When trade unionists become politicized — just like when anyone becomes politicized — they open themselves up to different forms of action that reinforce their new sense of responsibility to the world. Silos need not represent obstacles to action; they can rather become shared repositories through which different movements feed and strengthen each other.

The Right Kinds of Stories

In recent months, the possibility of a renegotiation of NAFTA has become increasingly likely.

For all Donald Trump’s xenophobic and nationalist economic rhetoric, his plans suggest that any new deal will further free capital to move across the bloc, enhancing corporations’ rights and protections at the expense of working communities and the environment. Any new measure will center on intellectual property and trade in services. It will strength ISDS measures that allow companies to sue nations for infringing on “profit rights.” It will push to further privatize the internet.

Members of the Trump administration, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and extending into the Goldman Sachs wing of his coalition, have explicitly stated that the new NAFTA will take the now-scuttled neoliberal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as its basis.

It would be unfair to narrowly blame the Pasta de Conchos spill on NAFTA, but we must recognize the extent to which the free trade agreement has contributed to a pro-business, anti-labor, and anti-environment culture that makes such events more likely.

Capital is cannibalizing Mexico: a shocking 28 percent of its land is now under concession for mining. The government has largely cast regulation aside to produce a chaotic and violent business bonanza.

The Trump coalition’s renegotiation plans represent a dystopic continuation of the current situation, further opening the three countries to casino capitalism that will cement the conditions for future spills, explosions, and deaths: the misery of the many for the benefit of the few.

Acknowledging all of this, Julia Quiñones nonetheless finds a well of optimism. For her, NAFTA has strengthened, or at least renewed, solidarity between civil-society groups on both sides of the border. It is precisely at the intersection of our shared exploitation that we will forge our strength to fight back.

However, the situation in Cananea has not yet resolved. The Mineros are still on strike, the townspeople have not received appropriate compensation, the river remains contaminated, and GM has faced no consequences. In fact, the Larrea family’s wealth grew more than anyone else’s did in Mexico in 2016, owing largely to their accelerated mine production.

In March 2017, GM made its latest severance offer to try to convince the striking workers to leave their jobs. But what would they do if they accepted? There is no more work in Cananea. Would they move to an over-expanded Mexico City? A maquila border town? Trump’s America?

If they break the strike, by force or by attrition, Grupo México and the current Mexican government will have won another battle in their quest to ensure the primacy of corporate profit and elite interests. Victory will legitimize their approach: production will continue to expand unsafely, corporations will continue to flout regulations, and we will all hurtle, on the backs of ever-more exploited labor, toward the next environmental catastrophe.

Unions and climate justice groups across North America must speak out. They must demand that the Mineros win a fair contract, that the affected regions receive adequate clean up, and that the government and GM give the people of Cananea fair reparations.

Politically speaking, these demands would have to flow through Mexico City. The PRI now faces pressure from an anti-establishment uprising, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a well-liked center-left politician, poses a credible challenge to its power. The ruling class can only fight on so many fronts, and concerted international pressure could force them to cave on this specific issue, if only to stave off Cananea’s revolutionary ghosts.

If the miners win their battle, theirs will be a story for the Left to tell over and over, both to ourselves and to those we hope will join us.. It will become part of the history that the Left can celebrate.

The story of the Mineros, and of the spill on the Río Sonora, describes a frontline battle and heroic perseverance in the face of adversity; it includes unexpected alliances between labor, environment, and community. It is a cinematic story, involving memorable characters, eventful history, intriguing subplots, and a moving human struggle.

Most fundamentally, this story challenges the dominant narrative sold to us by NAFTA and other neoliberal fairy tales, replacing it with a rich account of solidarity based in shared vulnerabilities and the commonality of human experience.

While William Cornell Greene successfully suppressed the 1906 miners’ strike, his victory turned out to be Pyrrhic. The story of his pillaging violence helped spur a nation to action and birth a movement of radical miners that remains active to this day.

President Porfirio Díaz and the corrupt Mexican government weren’t the only ones that fell a decade later; the Cananea massacre also marked the point of terminal decline for Greene’s fortunes. On the verge of bankruptcy, he died of pneumonia one year after the Mexican Revolution began.

In 1955, his family, torn over differing interpretations of his legacy, shipped his remains back to Mexico to be buried in the Cananea graveyard where they reside to this day.

Is this final resting place a bitter reminder of the ways that Greene’s legacy still haunts the town? Perhaps, but I’m also inclined to believe that it serves as a call to arms that strengthens the resolve of those who fight on.