The Mexican government has raided at least three squalid, makeshift farm labor camps in recent weeks, rescuing about 250 adults and children and posting videos of the operations — rare enforcement actions that suggest a more aggressive tack by federal labor authorities.
The first raids occurred March 6 at two labor camps serving a potato farm in Baja California Sur, followed about two weeks later by a surprise inspection of a cucumber farm in the western state of Colima.
Government videos show dozens of people living under plastic tarps strung from trees. There is no running water or bathrooms. Barefoot toddlers stumble through muddy fields. Children lug 30-pound buckets filled with cucumbers. About 170 workers share five filthy portable toilets.
At lunch, workers sit in the open fields eating their lunch with hands soiled with dirt from the fields.
"We're not going to permit that you eat in the fields. We're going to require that proper eating facilities are provided for you to eat," Jose Ernesto Alvarez Gamez, the federal labor department's representative in Baja California Sur, says to the workers in the video.
The workers said they were recruited from their villages in remote indigenous regions by contractors who made false promises about wages and living conditions. Some 200 workers at the Baja California site were Tarahumara Indians from the state of Chihuahua. Those at the Colima farm were Mixteco Indians from the state of Guerrero.
The raids strike at a generations-old system of supplying labor to farms large and small across Mexico. It is common for workers to live in overcrowded housing overrun with rodents and lacking beds, reliable water supplies or adequate food rations.
Some farms violate Mexican law as well as rules set by U.S. retailers by withholding laborers' wages until the end of the harvest, effectively trapping them for months at a time.
In December, The Times published "Product of Mexico," a four-part series documenting such labor abuses at Mexican export farms. Weeks later, Mexico's biggest growers and distributors, with the support of Mexico's secretary of agriculture, formed the International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry and pledged to improve conditions for farmworkers.
Officials at the office of Mexico's secretary of labor, which conducted the recent raids, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Some experts said the crackdown was probably ordered in response to heightened awareness of farm labor abuses, such as those described in The Times' series, in Mexican media reports and by human-rights activists.
Sara Lara, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has investigated farm labor issues for years, said she sensed a change of attitude in some federal labor officials.
"Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but officials seem to be more open to addressing the problem," she said.
One of the biggest previous crackdowns on farm labor abuses, in the state of Jalisco in June 2013, was led by state rather than federal authorities.
Inspectors, police and soldiers freed hundreds of laborers they said had been effectively imprisoned at a labor compound serving one of Mexico's biggest tomato exporters, Bioparques de Occidente. Five people were charged with human trafficking, but the case has stalled in the Jalisco court system.
Federal labor inspectors have not been effective in curbing farm labor abuses. Severe understaffing prevents inspections of most farms. Most visits are announced in advance, allowing growers to clean up their facilities. They also complain that farmers cited for abuses rarely pay the fines, creating a culture of impunity.
The lack of labor law enforcement is among the reasons cited by thousands of workers for their strike last month that crippled the Baja California agricultural economy. Workers are pressing for higher wages and for growers to provide government-mandated benefits.
Margarita Nemecio, a researcher with the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights in Guerrero, who has documented labor abuses in Baja California and other regions, questioned why inspectors haven't taken a tougher stance against larger growers, some of whom systematically deny workers their social security benefits.
Nemecio said the enforcement actions against smaller farms appear to be a public relations ploy to give the impression that the government is addressing the problem. She noted that no significant fines were issued, that there were no arrests and that workers continue living in bad conditions at other farms.
"The families are still working," Nemecio said. "They just went to other camps. Nothing changed."
It's not clear if the farms targeted in last month's raids were exporting produce to the United States. Inspectors didn't provide that information or identify the owners of the farms.
Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, said the key to improving conditions for Mexican farmworkers is for companies in the supply chain — including large U.S. retailers — to enforce their social responsibility codes.
Until there are serious consequences, labor abuses will persist, he said, adding, "That's going to be far more effective than any kind of government regulation."
U.S. retailers and distributors, he said, must tell their suppliers: "You have to do it this way, or you're not going to have a market for your produce."