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The news remains fresh only to the victims' families, and to out-of-town journalists who still fly into the Texas city of El Paso to cover the carnage just across the international line. A small central district with fading, colonial-style mansions is ringed by miles of dusty shantytowns, and traffic jams in which aging cars and buses jostle each other while ferrying thousands of workers to the city's vast industrial parks.
Forty years ago, the industrial parks did not exist and things were much quieter. There was also a "vice" sector of bars and prostitution. Originally, it serviced soldiers from El Paso's Fort Bliss military base and Prohibition-era tourists seeking alcohol and sex for hire. The BIP created the maquiladoras, or for short, maquilas—foreign-owned plants that use cheap Mexican labor to assemble imported materials, then send the finished product back to countries such as the United States, paying tax only on value added by the cheap labor.
Today it may be as high as two million. The count is uncertain because of the wave of immigrants constantly pouring in from Mexico's crisis-ridden countryside and interior cities. In the BIP's early years, almost all maquila workers were young women. They were preferred over men because, plant managers said, women had more agile hands. Women were also thought to better tolerate the tedium of the assembly line. Most important, women had not traditionally been industrial workers, had little experience with labor organizing, and were less likely to demand better working conditions or disrupt production over grievances.
By the s, however, the maquila industry had grown so much that women workers were in short supply. Workers of both sexes are generally very young: Many already help support families. Others work to enjoy their own money and time outside the home in a country in which young women traditionally have been cloistered within families, and where high school remains an unaffordable luxury for most working-class teenagers.
Even when unions are present, maquila management can negotiate entire contracts without worker input, and union representatives often work in tandem with company supervisors and personnel managers.