It's a blustery day in the border town of Mexicali in Baja California, Mexico, and five men are huddled inside a makeshift encampment covered with protest signs outside the city's government offices. The intense wind makes the tarps serving as walls flap loudly, like Batman's cape as he propels down a building. And just like Batman, they say they're there for justice.
Jesus Galaz Duarte, Mauricio Villa, Alberto Salcido, Francisco Javier Trujillo and Jorge Benitez all form part of Mexicali Resiste, an activist group fighting the opening of a new brewery by the Fortune 500 company Constellation Brands. Constellation makes wines, spirits and beer, including Corona, Modelo and Pacifico as well as beers from craft brewer Ballast Point. The company has set up offices in the city, and is working with the local government to build a $1.5 billion brewery that will use local water to make beer for American consumers.
The brewery is slated to open in about five years, and plans to invest another $500 million for infrastructure, land and water rights to double production over time. It will initially make 10 million hectoliters of beer (roughly 264 million gallons), according to the company press release. Constellation Brands says it will use 3.5 liters of water from local wells to produce one liter of beer, amounting to 1.8 billion gallons of water a year.
While not a drop of the beer would go to the Mexican market, Constellation Brands says the brewery will create 750 permanent jobs in Mexicali.
But members of Mexicali Resiste say the negative impacts far outweigh the possible benefits, and are hoping to stop Goliath in his tracks. They've set up encampments, held marches and led protests that have in some cases erupted in violence. Videos showing members throwing rocks and being bloodied by police batons have gone viral. Members also claim to have been harassed and threatened, beaten and had their offices burglarized.
"It's a model of exploitation and capitalism where they basically come for the natural resources to exploit them and take them away to wherever the market is," says Galaz Duarte. "When the market grows and has to to satisfy consumers, they're going to deplete the water here. So what's going to happen? They're going to go to another place where there's more water to satisfy the same market and deplete their water. They're going to leave this region without the resources to live a dignified life."
A strained water system
Water is a precious commodity, especially in Mexicali and many neighboring cities where it isn't uncommon to wake up in the morning to find there's no running water. About four hours southeast of Los Angeles, Mexicali's temperatures are the highest in all of Mexico, reaching up to 125 degrees F. Local agriculture heavily relies on municipal water sources and the Colorado River as there's virtually no rainfall throughout the year.
Around 300,000 people in Baja California live without regular access to water, and nearly 6 percent of households lack running water. Tijuana and Mexicali are hit hardest, Mexico's government reports. However, the count only includes water for bathing, washing, gardening, etc. Mexico's tap water is unsafe to drink, so drinking water has to be purchased from outside companies.
The National Water Commission (Conagua) has reported that 37.5 percent of Mexico's aquifers are overexploited, with Mexicali's suffering most. This has led local farmers to stop producing on large sections of land.
Activists, local farmers, and many others are demanding answers as to why, with such a scarcity of water, the government is giving Constellation Brands millions of gallons of it to make beer for American consumers.
"The situation with Constellation Brands is born out of a circuit of corruption," says Salcido. "All that corruption was seen reflected with the welcoming of a beer company from the United States that has demonstrated will be a straw that is going to consume millions of liters of water knowing that water is needed by farmers and more than anything the city."
Standards and influence
Jorge Burgos, brewery director at Constellation Brands' Mexicali offices, assures there's no laws being broken or ethics being violated.
"A company like Constellation Brands is managed with international standards in terms of high ethics and values," he says. "Constellation Brands has been in the U.S. for more than 70 years, and for a company to have that kind of permanence, it has to be managed with high national and international standards of ethics and values, and the care of the environment and natural resources. It's implicit."
But activists point out the cozy relationship Constellation has with the government. The legal representative for Constellation Brands, Sergio Eduardo Montes Montoya, also works in the mayor's office as the director of Urban Administration. Senator Victor Hermosillo Celada's company, Hermosillo and Associates, is leading the construction of the multi-billion dollar brewery, and speaks openly about his political and business dealings.
Constellation Brands denies the suggestion of corruption. It issued a statement in response to NPR's questions:
"No government officials or authorities in office have been hired by Constellation Brands. We continue to work with local authorities to ensure all aspects of our brewery construction project are in full compliance with all applicable rules, regulations and laws. This has been validated by Mexico's Ministry of the Interior," it says.
Members of the Mexican government contacted about the same allegations have yet to respond.
Constellation Brands already operates one of the largest breweries in the world out of the city of Nava in Coahuila, which opened in 2010. The company is in the process of expanding it. Constellation also operates a brewery in the city of Sonora in Obregon, which it also plans to expand.
As Burgos explains, the company chose Mexicali for its third Mexican brewery because of its proximity to the border and intended market. The city also offers a glass bottle plant, a cardboard plant and potential for an aluminum can plant, all of which represent 70 percent of Constellation Brands' supply costs.
Burgos says the brewery will use water that is designated for agriculture but isn't being used by farmers, so it's not taking any extra from the city's water sources. "The water isn't going to run out," he says. "We come with the directive to take care of the natural resources."
A pattern of privatization
Activist Galaz Duarte says the brewery's influence is part of a larger problem. He worries that a lack of transparency and public involvement may lead to the privatization of water that will benefit big corporations, including Constellation Brands, the government, and politicians at the expense of the people.
In December, Baja California governor Francisco "Kiko" Vega introduced a controversial Ley del Agua (Waters Law) Bill that would allow private entities to access the state's treated water and build services around it. But it was recently rescinded after mass protests. Projects like the Constellation Brands brewery raise questions about continued efforts to privatize water.
"Basically this government has based its business model around selling the public's water," says Galaz Duarte. "In this model, anything can be bought. Everything has a price."
Alex Zaragoza is a freelance culture writer based in Los Angeles. She was raised on the U.S.-Mexico border. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @there_she_goz.