Resourceful Poor Find Survival in Stink of Tijuana's 'El Dompe'

Times Staff Writer

As the columns of trucks arrive, overflowing with the detritus of modern civilization, the pepenadores, or garbage scavengers, swarm around them with a professional fervor, awaiting the spoils. The daily spectacle at the city dump here abruptly challenges illusions about this city's oft-mentioned "prosperity": This is the Third World, all right, less than 10 miles from Southern California.

Some pickers, including families and children, scavenge the trash for metal and bottles for resale. Others eye cardboard, paper products or wood. Everyone hopes for a lucky find: a gold ring, a silver bracelet, or, more improbably, a wad of $100 bills. (Stories, seemingly apocryphal, still circulate about the boy who found $1,000 in a forgotten box.) But many seek a more basic commodity--food.

"Of course we'll eat the good stuff," explained Manuela Esquivel, 61, knee-deep in a rotting swamp of fruit and vegetables, seemingly oblivious to the pungent and ubiquitous odor. "This is my chicken caldo (soup) for tonight," Esquivel added, accompanied by the raucous laughs of nearby women, as she hoisted a plastic bag full of bloodied parts. "What we don't eat we give to the pigs. Better to eat this than die hungry!"

Near Tourist Area

So it goes each day at Tijuana's largest municipal dump, only a few miles from the tourist drags of downtown.

Upwards of 200 families, among Tijuana's poorest, depend on the dump--widely referred to here as el dompe, an adaptation of the English--for their livelihoods. Pickers sell the material to middlemen purchasers, who resell it for recycling. It is an economy unto itself.

The fly-infested Tijuana dump covers 22 acres of privately owned, largely unoccupied land sprawling on mesa tops and canyons not far from the Pacific. Sea gulls scavenge alongside the people. Errant plastic bags and other scattered litter from the dump cling to surrounding hillsides and flutter in the wind like the refuse of a forgotten settlement. On a bluff above the site, city officials have opened a cemetery, where users pay about $8 to bury their dead. Some graves are dug in the landfill.

Guarding Their Bounties

Shocking as the dump may seem to the American eye, it is a commonplace scene throughout the Third World: From Cairo to Lima, impoverished people make their living by scavenging from dumps, often jealously guarding their bounties and residing in makeshift hovels alongside and within the heaps of trash. These places are propitious sites for the spread of dysentery and a range of other ailments. Generations have worked some dumps; many adult pickers in Mexico and elsewhere began their occupations as children.

But the Tijuana rubbish heap's proximity to the border, in a city acknowledged as one of Mexico's more affluent, imparts a jarring note. Scavengers here say Tijuana's prosperity and its location on the border add to the dump's lure: people are more inclined to discard usable and resalable items, many of them made in the United States.

"There are many more possibilities here," said Francisco Hernandez, 18, a recent arrival from Mexico City, where he said he worked scavenging several large dumps. "There are more valuable things to be found here. People are more civilized."

Despite their impoverished and desperate appearance, most of the grimy trash-pickers of Tijuana eke out a living. The pickers' limited incomes are supplemented by usable salvaged items, from building material to clothing to food.

"I would say that the economic position of the pickers is somewhat better than the typical workers," said Victor Clark Alfaro, a Tijuana anthropologist who has had some contacts with the dump community.

In fact, some Mexican scavengers have tasted the fruits of relative prosperity.

$1.6-Million Estate

In Mexico City, so-called "King of Trash" Rafael Gutierrez Moreno, who controlled a 10,000-person union of pickers at sundry dumps, left an estate estimated at $1.6 million when he was shot to death last year, apparently the victim of a crime of passion. In Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S.-Mexico border across from El Paso, dump workers and residents revolted a decade ago against the businessmen who had long had exclusive rights to scavenged material. The Juarez pickers eventually gained control of the dump, purchased a fleet of trucks and established a system enabling trash-pickers to buy houses, insurance and other once-unimaginable amenities.

Not so in Tijuana, however, where ill-organized pickers have little choice but to sell their products to buyers who enjoy monopolies. There is a flip side to the claim that the scavengers are slightly better off than other workers: "The pickers are also subject to exploitation to those who control the dump, and to any illnesses they may contract there," Clark said.

The general "stigma" of toiling amid the trash seems relatively unimportant to some pickers. Many speak approvingly of life in the dump, noting proudly that they set their own hours and answer to no boss, and sounding at times like small-business conventioneers.

Indelible Stink, Grime

But some pickers interviewed here complained about the stink and grime they must take home with them, almost always to crowded houses without running water or electricity.

"This work bothers me a lot," said Jose Angel Galeana, 37, who walks an hour to get to the dump by about 7 a.m. each day. "You're dirty all the time. You work in trash. You stink after work. But what else can I do?"

Galeana said he can earn upwards of $6 a day scavenging at the dump. Others said they can earn up to $10.

The fenced-in dump, which also features an open-air restaurant, has several sections. Animal offal, toxic material and other potentially dangerous materials are supposed to be placed in special areas; liquids and chemical wastes are prohibited completely. But observation confirms that the dumping is often haphazard and unregulated. Illicit dumpers, some from the United States, have also left toxic refuse here illegally, sometimes in the evenings, an official acknowledged.

"Sometimes they (the dumpers) fool us," said Luis Martinez Limon, a partner in a private company, Eco-Contratistas, which has the city concession to operate the dump. "This is a sanitary landfill," Martinez noted, shifting from Spanish to English, "but it's not completely sanitary."

But the company strictly enforces a policy prohibiting pickers from living on the dump site. A shotgun-toting guard watches for after-hours trespassers to keep away squatters who could eventually make legal claims for the land, and for the material culled from the trash.

The trash firm also limits the entry of purchasers to whom the pickers sell recyclable materials. The firm receives 5% of sales and charges about $3 a ton for dumping fees, Martinez said, adding that the estimated $35,000 in annual revenue was hardly enough to pay for dump upkeep and staff pay.

System Maintains Order

The official acknowledged that pickers could sell the scavenged material for considerably more elsewhere in Tijuana--a grievance frequently aired by frustrated workers. But, Martinez added, order is maintained under the monopoly system, in which one buyer for each commodity is allowed to make purchases.

Pickers complain bitterly about the system, but there appears to be little impetus to change things.

"What alternatives do we have?" asked Raul Diaz Lopez, a father of four from the interior state of Michoacan, who works in the dump along with his parents, including his 69-year-old mother, and his wife, Veronica. "Anyway, it's a better life than we left behind."

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