Bad Blood: Migration and the meat industry

By Patricia Schwartz and Sean McNulty

Before dawn in Quetzaltenango, work had already begun at the slaughterhouse on the edge of town. Cows trucked from the coastal lowlands are lowing in their pens. Vultures stand vigil on the roof. In Iowa, Mercedes Gomez was also up before the sun—clocking in at the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States to stuff sausage casings for six dollars an hour.

Why was Mercedes – a Guatemalan – working at a meatpacking plant a thousand miles from home? The factors that drove her to migrate, the work she found in Iowa, and the forces that returned her to Guatemala are rooted in a neoliberal trade scheme that prioritizes free movement of meat over the rights and livelihoods of those who process it.

Trade between Guatemala and the US is codified via an international trade pact – the Dominican Republic and Central America Free Trade Agreement, or DR-CAFTA. Guatemala is a net importer of meat and many other basic food items under the policies of CAFTA, despite the fact that over a third of its workforce is employed in the agriculture sector.

The Guatemalan Congress passed CAFTA in only two days in 2005, under significant US pressure and without much public support. The agreement opened the door for international corporations to flood Central American markets with products from abroad and globalized the process of production—converting food from localized sustenance into an international trade commodity.

When the rules of the economic game are set by trade agreements developed by the United States, traditional food systems in countries like Guatemala suffer. Small-scale producers are forced into competition with government-subsidized industrial farms in the US. With their large market share, ease of access, low tariffs, modified crops and agrochemicals, these farms can export food products to Guatemala at prices up to 30-40% below fair market value. Guatemalan farmers and ranchers are thus compelled to produce export-only products. They’re left vulnerable to market shifts, driven away from subsistence and native food production, and sometimes lose their land.

Vultures and cattle at the Xela slaughterhouse. Photo by Patricia Schwartz.

Global meat production is also a major driver of climate change. About sixty pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere per pound of beef produced. In Guatemala, which is paradoxically a net importer of beef, deforestation for cattle ranching has devastated regions like Petén – literally burning through one of the most biodiverse and ecologically delicate parts of the country and introducing millions of pounds of carbon dioxide through clear-cutting and burning for the agriculture industry.

The short-term economic gains of Petén’s agricultural reinvention have not trickled down. Indeed, they’ve exacerbated economic pressure on the three out of four Guatemalans who live below the poverty line. The transformation of rainforest into cattle ranches consolidates land even further in the hands of Guatemala’s elite, worsening land tenure in a country where less than five percent of the population owns about four fifths of arable land. It also consolidates wealth in the hands of drug traffickers – many of whom launder drug money via massive ranching operations – further entrenching impunity, corruption, and the specter of drug-driven violence in the Guatemalan food system.

Climate change, land consolidation, and neoliberal trade agreements like CAFTA are threats to Guatemala’s majority. An economic climate of little opportunity often leaves migration in search of work as the only option. In her hometown of Sacatepéquez, Mercedes could barely make enough to survive.

“I’m a single mother,” she said. “I have three children and I take care of my parents… life is really hard. One struggles and struggles and can’t make a living. That’s why I borrowed money to go to the States.”  There, she ended up in an Iowa factory town called Postville.

Postville is a town in the midwestern United States – a region recently remade by industrial agriculture and the displacement of unionized manufacturing jobs in a globalized trade system. Postville was home to the Agriprocessors factory – the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States. Mercedes worked there stuffing sausages in order to send home remittances and save for a better life.

That was her plan, at least. On the morning of May 12th, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted Agriprocessors for the single largest workplace immigration raid in US history. More than 400 workers, most of them Guatemalan, were arrested in a performative show of force.


Vultures at the Xela slaughterhouse. Photo by Patricia Schwartz.

Hurried legal proceedings for Mercedes and her coworkers were staged in Iowa’s National Cattle Congress – the pens where the best cattle in the state are judged each year at the county fair. Without adequate representation, translation services, or due process, they were tried ten at a time.

Many Agriprocessors workers, including Mercedes, then spent five months in criminal detention centers following the Postville raid. They served sentences for the charge of aggravated identity theft for using false social security numbers. This legal tactic, long-used by immigration prosecutors to coerce undocumented workers into pleading guilty to lesser charges, was rejected by the Supreme Court the year after the Postville raid.

The raid is not an isolated incident. In 2006, ICE arrested and deported more than a thousand workers at six different meatpacking plants owned by Swift & Company. These large-scale raids neatly reflect how immigration enforcement policies exploit migrant workers from developing nations. They criminalize their cooperation in the very system that dismantled long-established work and food systems in their home countries.

Though the Obama administration shifted away from the large-scale workplace raids seen under Bush, it increased the immigration enforcement budget by 300% and oversaw the deportation of more people than any past administration. Donald Trump, while hoping to dismantle or renegotiate free trade pacts like CAFTA, has so far not walked away from his promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants – starting with two million in his first hundred days.

These dramatic enforcement actions paint a picture of an agency pushing back against immigration. What they don’t do is address the underlying factors that drive immigrants to the US, or deter them from coming. The Guatemalan migrants working the assembly line on that May morning were effectively invisible parts of the process of meat production. The raid rendered them suddenly visible – human beings used as props in a performance with a five million-dollar price tag.

Splashy deportations also fail to address a basic fact – that processing plants like Postville put meat on supermarket shelves via cheap and vulnerable labor from which consumers are thoroughly alienated.

All told, Guatemala imports far more meat than it exports or produces internally; and the way in which that meat reaches tables has become a veiled industrial process. Machine and quota-driven assembly lines in the United States systematically convert animals into processed and packaged commodities to be shipped and sold a thousand miles south. This has divorced many Guatemalans from localized meat production—a practice where livestock are raised locally, butchered by the ranchers who raised them, and sold as fresh meat at a local market.

Foreign supermarkets are a rapidly growing sector in Guatemala. Walmart de Mexico y Centroamérica owns most of Guatemala’s supermarkets. They’re a principal driver of foreign direct investment in Guatemala, which has risen 45% since the implementation of CAFTA. Much of their meat is imported from processing plants where migrants like Mercedes pack it.

Today, the Postville plant continues its operation. It is now owned by Agristar- another kosher meatpacker and member of the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Somali and Burmese workers work the factory, stuffing the same sausage casings that Mercedes once did.

In her colonia outside Guatemala City, Mercedes has returned to a life more-or-less as before, though her son and brothers remain in the United States. She now has a small shop where she sells clothing and corn snacks to get by. Many of the products in her tiendecita are bought wholesale from Despensa Familiar – a supermarket chain owned by Walmart de Mexico y Centroamerica.

She’s back where she started – at the bottom rung of the industry ladder. And, without the wages from her meatpacking job, she’s struggling to put food on the table.

“I worked hard to be able to make a bit more money than I can here,” she said. “Here there is no money. And if you don’t earn, you don’t eat.”

Slaughterhouse, Xela. Photo by Particia Schwartz.