The ‘King’ Is Dead : Mexico City Dumps: Bad Times Loom

Times Staff Writer

Almost from the day Rafael Gutierrez Moreno, the ragpicker king of Mexico City, was shot to death in his bed, the target of three bullets fired at close range, his widow got the feeling that trash would never again be the gold mine it once was.

Fewer and fewer garbage trucks made the trip to the dumps that Gutierrez controlled on the eastern lip of Mexico City. The rubbish that did arrive was picked almost clean by competing scavengers who staked out transfer stations and took the best booty--metal, glass, or paper--to sell themselves.

Rumor spread that the city government wanted to end the practice of organized ragpicking and break the 10,000-member union Gutierrez had created, a union that had become a political force in the capital.


Tied Up in Court

On top of that, the money Gutierrez accumulated through the years was tied up in court, claimed by a number of women and children who said they were the true heirs to his fortune. A former lieutenant of Gutierrez showed up and insisted that both the union and the cash were his to control.

“First no garbage and then no money,” sighed Guillermina de la Torre, the widow, who is battling for both as titular head of the union of scavengers. “The garbage is ours, the money is ours and no one has the right to take either.”

Gutierrez’s legacy is estimated to be worth $1.6 million. De la Torre, 37, a schoolteacher who has never worked the dumps, said she wants the money not for herself but for the union. She added, though, that some cash is due her eight children by Gutierrez. Lawsuits could drag on for years.

A Forbidden Corner

In the meantime, publicity surrounding Gutierrez’s killing and the fighting among his heirs have drawn attention to an obscure, almost forbidden corner of Mexico City life.

For the first time, the doors to the “Kingdom of Garbage,” as Mexico City newspapers call it, have been thrown open. Behind them was revealed a tale of Third World survival among the capital’s forgotten poor--and unexpected riches gleaned from society’s rubbish.

Some disclosures were sensational. For instance, free love and wife-swapping were apparently practiced by the ragpickers, as attested to by the 27 children fighting for Gutierrez’s money.


Otherwise, life among the scavengers in many ways mirrored life elsewhere in Mexico: the scrambling to make a living, the reliance on a top leader with connections to stave off government interference, corruption as a form of protection--in all, the typical political structure that Mexicans know simply as “the system.”

“It should be made clear that the scavengers make up an organized social group,” said sociologist Hector Castillo, who has written articles and a book on the ragpickers. “Their labor is productive, and they have their own social stratification controlled by leaders who occupy command positions in the community.”

The present capital of the trash empire is in Santa Catarina Yecahuizotl, at the outer limits of the city, where a huge mound of garbage and dirt covering more than 100 acres rises alongside the highway to Puebla. Snowcapped peaks of two massive mountains to the southeast form a majestic backdrop to an otherwise bleak landscape of dust, paper, plastic and metal.

In order to get in, one must be announced by a security guard at the gate.

Trucks, large and small, creep up paved roads to the mound’s summit, passing rows of small, yellow, single-level apartments where the workers live. Many of the homes are furnished with discards.

Children, dogs and pigs scamper up the mound as trucks approach to deposit their load. Teams of men and women thrust pitchforks into the trash to extract usable material. Bones can be sold to glue factories; cardboard, glass and metal can be recycled.

The waste is separated and sold to middlemen who pay a fee to the union. The collection and sales are businesslike, broken only by the appearance of a taco or oyster salesman.


Once in a long while, something valuable in itself is found: a coin or a bill, jewelry, watches.

“I once found these silver earrings,” boasted Grijilda Gonzalez, 68, pulling back her matted hair to expose two bright dangling crescents. “We especially look forward to examining the rich trash from Lomas or San Angel, where the people are well off and are always dropping things.”

A harsh odor clings to the community. A visitor inquires about disease. The answer is one of proud defiance.

“We are immune; we are stronger than people who live on the outside,” said Gonzalez, the oldest scavenger at Santa Catarina.

Pride is something workers say their late leader, Rafael Gutierrez Moreno, instilled in them. Gutierrez once put up a billboard in a ragpickers’ neighborhood that said, “We Are Mexican, Too.” He habitually described their livelihood as an industry and once posed proudly atop a pile of garbage, proclaiming it to be “gray gold.”

Hit Upon an Idea

The dark, stocky Gutierrez was born in Mexico City in 1942. He earned a living for many years driving a garbage truck and reselling trash. In 1965, he hit upon an idea: to form a union of the ragpickers who combed Mexico City’s extensive landfills looking for something to sell. Until then, the unfortunates who scavenged for a living were at the mercy of any public official who happened by and demanded a “bite”--a portion--of their meager earnings.


Gutierrez offered protection and an exclusive claim on the trade. No one outside the union would trespass on unionized dumps. Suddenly, ragpicking became a closed shop.

There was a price for this. Gutierrez had to promise half the ragpickers’ earnings to the chief of the city’s Cleanup and Transport Department.

A stroke of luck helped make Gutierrez wealthy. A change of government brought the downfall of his partner in Cleanup and Transport. Under a new arrangement, Gutierrez had to share less union income--no one will say exactly how much--with government officials. Money from union fees was mostly his to keep or dispense.

Gutierrez quickly became what Mexicans call a cacique, a combination tyrant and benefactor to his laboring flock. He invested in public works on behalf of the workers, building modest housing around a dump at Santa Cruz Meyehualco.

‘Rafael Sports City’

For the first time, the scavengers lived in homes of concrete instead of metal sheets from the garbage dump. Other projects followed, including playing fields called “Rafael Sports City.” He gave out toys on Christmas and other holidays.

He had his own police force and dictated the law in the ragpicker’s communities. The moral subculture included free-wheeling sex.


Grijilda Gonzalez defended the mores in the dumps, saying: “Our clothes are dirty, but our souls are clean. On the outside, they have drug addicts, homosexuals and crime. We don’t have such things here.”

Through the years, Gutierrez’s empire expanded well beyond Santa Cruz. He controlled dumps in the western foothills of the city and in the wide expanse of dried-up portions of Lake Texcoco. At one time, his dumps received rubbish from all 16 of Mexico City’s boroughs. Gross intake reached 14,000 tons of trash a day. At its peak, the Union of Scavengers had 16,000 members.

Gutierrez’ wealth grew apace. He built houses for himself and his friends throughout the city. His latest was a yellow mansion at the edge of the Santa Catarina dump. Surrounded as it is by the row homes of the workers, it looks like a manor house. The most visible sign of opulence is a parabolic antenna that brings in television broadcasts from the United States. No one is allowed inside the house; it is under the custody of the attorney general’s office.

Support for Ruling Party

The cacique’s political renown also grew. In return for control of the dumps, Gutierrez’s union gave unwavering electoral support to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, Mexico’s ruling group. In turn, the government built schools and provided running water for his communities. Santa Catarina even boasts an outdoor theater.

Photos on the wall of the union office in Santa Catarina attest to the influence of Gutierrez’s union. One shows President Miguel De la Madrid on a visit to Santa Catarina. Another is of Mexico City Mayor Ramon Aguirre. Gutierrez himself was once elected to Congress.

However, change was on the horizon. Mexico City grew, and although that meant more garbage, it also meant that the urban sprawl overtook some of the older landfills. Lots in Santa Fe closed as neighborhoods popped up around the dumps and the odor became intolerable for new residents. The city’s spread reached Santa Cruz and the government ordered the pioneer dump there closed. It is now covered over by grass and trees. New dumps in the Lake Texcoco basin were made off-limits to Gutierrez. Scavengers were being forced out of work; the union shrank to 10,000 members.


Since Mexico City was running out of space, plans were made to incinerate waste rather than deposit it on vacant land. Although no large-scale incineration project materialized--the government lacked funds--the trend became clear.

“They are destroying our industry,” Grijilda Gonzalez said. “We are not unemployed like people on the outside think. We perform a service. If they don’t bring us garbage, they had better bring us jobs.”

Last February, in the midst of all this change, Gutierrez was killed while entertaining a lover one night, according to his widow, De la Torre. At 2 a.m. someone--the lover’s brother, De la Torre thinks--shot him.

“They were after his money,” she said.

The suspects, who are in jail, said that Gutierrez was mistreating the woman. In any case, the cacique’s death left his followers feeling stranded.

“He had all the connections,” De la Torre said. “He was a politician. He kept the books, everything, in his head.”

Workers interviewed at Santa Catarina said they support De la Torre and want her to head their union. The community distrusts outsiders.


“The others who want to take over the union,” ragpicker Arturo Gama said, “they don’t know from garbage.”

Eventually, the government is expected to decide who controls the union. Once that question is cleared up, the scavengers plan to convert their organization into a cooperative so that money will no longer be kept in the name of the union chief.

De la Torre says she will use a political weapon to get recognition for her claims and those of her followers: the vote here in next year’s presidential election.

“The PRI knows that if we are satisfied, we can produce 10,000 votes,” she said. “If not, we will vote for someone who promises to help us.”

Once the union is remade, she said, they will lobby to keep the garbage flowing as it once did.