VILLA JUAREZ, Mexico — They sure do have tomatoes here in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Elongated red ones. Round green ones. Cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, grape tomatoes.
Vast fields of tomatoes, lining the roads out of the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan, miles and miles of mesh tenting shielding the plants from the sun.
Last year, Sinaloa exported 950,000 tons of vegetables, mostly tomatoes and mostly to California and other parts of the United States, worth nearly $1 billion. Half the tomatoes eaten in the United States this time of year are from Sinaloa. The tomato is the symbol on the Sinaloa license plate.
But while a short list of landowners make millions, the planting, weeding, pruning and picking of the vegetables fall to armies of workers from Mexico's poorest states — Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas — who have little opportunity for schooling or other forms of legal employment.
So they are here in these fields, recruited by enganchadores — or "hooks" — who round them up in their home villages, and working in conditions that vary from producer to producer but that many critics say amount to indentured servitude.
Felipa Reyes, 40, from the violent state of Veracruz, has been toiling in the fields of Sinaloa for seven years. "You have to do the work they want, or you don't earn anything," she said. Complain? "And I'd end up with nothing."
Carmen Hernandez Ramos is 52 and looks 80. She has been sticking tiny tomato plants into the earth, then harvesting the fruit months later, for 15 years, but still earns the same daily wage as Reyes: $10. Originally from a small village in Oaxaca, the mother of six works back-wrenching nine-hour days. "If we work, we have security," she said, waving her thick-knuckled hands. "If we don't, we have nothing."
The two women live in tin-roofed adobe shacks set behind chain-link fences.
Conditions, the women said, have changed little over the years. They have electricity but no running water; some floors are tiled, others are dirt.
The 50 or so families living in this compound under billboards for DuPont Chemical's Agriseeds and Gruindag triple-action insecticides share open-air toilets and showers.
Known as jornaleros — literally "day laborers" — they are mostly from indigenous, rural communities. Most speak little Spanish.
Recruited in their hometowns and loaded onto buses for 30-hour drives to Sinaloa, many recent arrivals say they feel deceived about the conditions, opportunities and pay that awaited them. Once in Sinaloa, they say, they feel trapped — housed in fenced compounds far from actual towns with movement restricted for what owners say are security reasons.
Many say the farmers refuse to pay them until the end of the season, obliging them to stick it out; in the meantime, they buy tortillas, cooking oil and other supplies on credit from small stores owned by their employers.
"They know their rights but can't talk about it: They'd be out of a job the next day," said Cresencio Ramirez, 32, a Triqui Indian from Oaxaca who managed to alternate picking tomatoes and jalapeno peppers with schooling, eventually earning a law degree.
As a member of the Democratic Network of Indigenous Pueblos, he is allowed to visit farmworkers but, he says, is restricted in what he may talk about. Labor law is not on the approved list.
"They have no freedom of choice" to come and go from the farm, change jobs or speak out about it, he added.
Farm owners counter that they have made steady improvements. In the last couple of decades, they say, workers increasingly bring their entire families; even mayors join the exodus to the fields.
Although most laborers return to their hometowns at the end of the season, which tends to extend from the Day of the Dead in November to Holy Week before Easter, more have begun to settle permanently in Sinaloa in places such as Villa Juarez, now in essence a roadside slum with slightly steadier housing and about 20,000 residents.
By law, the growers are now required to provide schools, nurseries and healthcare for the estimated 150,000 jornaleros (down from 250,000 25 years ago) and allow inspections by social workers. The social workers, however, are usually on the farm owners' payroll.