In addition to her children’s medical problems, Valenzuela’s family business, which made sweets and cheese, folded when customers in the state capital, hearing of the spill, didn’t want to buy any products from the river towns. Valenzuela went to the mine to ask for money to take her children to Phoenix, Arizona, where hospitals can perform more sophisticated blood tests for chemical exposure.
“The miners helped us and gave us a place to stay,” she recalls, but when they went to the mine’s director, José Julián Chavira, “they wouldn’t even talk with us.” She became one of the first participants in the plantón.
Laura Gutierrez is still outraged about the spill. “Our town, San Rafael, is made up of farmers,” she says. “We plant corn and peanuts, and we didn’t harvest anything last year. … Now we have nothing to live on.” Farmers in the area aren’t even planting this spring, because they fear the water is contaminated.
“This was an extremely toxic brew that went into the river,” according to Garrett Brown, director of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network and a former inspector for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “Lead causes serious and permanent damage to children. Cadmium is a known carcinogen.” The spill deposited heavy metals along hundreds of miles of riverbanks and into the aquifer.
After the spill, the authorities closed down 300 wells in the river towns. Grupo México’s website says the company distributed 164 million liters of water for free and installed 58 tanks of 5,500 gallons each in schools. The company also set up a $150 million fund to pay damages to residents and paid a fine of $2 million.
But some residents say they haven’t received any money, while others charge that after the drinking water supplied by Grupo México ran out they had to buy their own. “Right now we’re paying 25 pesos for a gallon of water,” Gutierrez says. “People who don’t have the money can’t buy it. We haven’t received a peso from the fund. No one I work with has.”
The purpose of the plantón, says Tolano, is not just to stop the mine’s operation. The union and residents have organized a coalition, the Sonora River Front, which is demanding that the government force Grupo México to clean up the river and take responsibility for the health and lost income of residents. It also seeks to restore the strikers to their jobs.
“Because the miners are supporting us, we’re supporting them,” Valenzuela says. “If we all get together, we can do something here. The whole Rio Sonora is with them.”
This effort also includes the U.S. union for copper miners, the United Steel Workers. Manny Armenta, a USW representative, has helped the local union in Cananea since the strike started. The night the police broke the lines at the gate in 2010, he led families out of the union hall to safety.
“You could smell the tear gas all over,” he recalls. “It was like a military occupation.” At the march to the pumping station, Armenta spoke to the crowd. “The government and Grupo México are making history,” he said, “but backwards, taking away the right to strike and the right to industrial safety.”
The U.S. union has given sanctuary to the head of the national miners’ union, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia. After 65 miners died in a 2006 explosion at Grupo México’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Coahuila, about 50 miles from the Texas border, Gómez accused the corporation and government of “industrial homicide.” Workers had complained of gas leaks and struck repeatedly over safety concerns. Five days after the explosion the company halted rescue efforts, and the government announced the mine would be closed.
Within weeks, the conservative administration of President Vicente Fox charged Gómez with fraud, and he left Mexico to escape arrest. Courts have found all charges against him groundless, and he has been re-elected union president several times. Nevertheless, he continues to stay in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a guest of the United Steel Workers, worried that the government and Grupo México will find another pretext for jailing him should he return.
The U.S. union is trying to renegotiate its contract with Grupo México’s ASARCO. Two years ago, the Mineros, the national miners’ union, and the USW agreed to join to form a single union. The merger has not been completed, but they now support each other in dealing with their common employers and look to the day when their bargaining can be coordinated.
Tolano credits this alliance with keeping the strike in Cananea alive. “Some of us have had a very hard time, but due to our tradition of supporting each other we’ve been able to take care of ourselves,” he says. “There have been divorces. Some people have lost their homes. But we’re still here.”