Authorities in the Mexican border city of Juárez are finalizing their investigation into the cause of a deadly explosion at a candy factory last month. This weekend a seventh person died as a result of his injuries. Seven others remain hospitalized with severe burns.
The factory is one of thousands spread across the border region that manufactures products and components for the United States. Last month's accident is raising questions about safety standards at these factories.
The explosion happened at the Blueberry Factory, which manufactures all sorts of candies popular in the United States. Outside the partially destroyed building in a central Juárez industrial park things are mostly quiet. But signs of the deadly explosion last month are still visible in heaps of concrete mixed with workers' hair nets and fuzzy bits of yellow insulation. The blast was so powerful it caused the collapse of the second floor in the newest section of the building.
Xitali Lopez is one of more than 1,000 workers employed by the plant, where she packaged Sour Patch Kids candies. On the afternoon of the explosion she said she first heard a loud sizzling sound.
"The lights went out," she said. "And then came came the deafening sound of the explosion."
Fortunately, Lopez was among those who made it out unharmed. But her father, who also worked at the factory, was not so lucky.
"He was trapped in the rubble," she said.
The next time she saw her father was in a hospital room. Ninety percent of his body was severely burned and he had a punctured lung. He died two days later on Lopez's 21st birthday.
News of the factory explosion spread quickly. Blueberry is one of the more well-established factories in Juárez. It's been in the city for at least two decades and its owners are among the wealthiest families in the state of Chihuahua. The factory has a sister plant in neighboring El Paso. Local newspapers report there have been two major fires at the plant in the last decade. But federal regulators maintain that the factory has a good record of compliance with Mexican safety regulations.
Cutberto Medina Cervantes represents the Secretary of Labor in the state of Chihuahua. His agency oversees structural safety in both foreign and national factories. In the last 13 years, he said, Blueberry has been inspected 31 times. Since then there have been two work related deaths at the factory. In neither case was the company found at fault.
"We are constantly vigilant of the safety conditions at these factories," he said.
One thing is certain, the Blueberry explosion is not helping the image of the foreign factory, or maquiladora, in Juárez. A common perception among the general public and the local news media is that maquiladoras are the bad guys.
"Juárez tries to blame the maquiladora for everything, even the criminal activity," said Manuel Ochoa of El Paso-based company Tecma.
Ochoa recruits foreign companies to open factories in Mexico. He is a staunch defender of maquiladoras and said the industry is unfairly vilified. Maquiladoras, he said, are subject to strict federal, state and local regulations that address everything from environmental impact to employee safety.
"They represent about 62 percent of the economy in Juárez," Ochoa said. "They employ more than 240,000 people right now. They are providing more benefits than the corner store or the pharmacy."
The Juárez Association of Maquiladoras maintains disasters like the explosion at the Blueberry factory are uncommon. Director Claudia Triotiño said the blast was likely the worst of its kind in the 40 years maquilas have existed in Juárez.
Back at home, playing with her pet poodle, Xitali Lopez said she plans to go back to work at Blueberry. She said since her father’s death the company has taken care of the funeral expenses and helped with the paperwork they need to receive his pension.
"This work will not bring me down," she said. "I will come out ahead. It's the same work ethic my father taught me."
Updated 11/12/13 at 4:19 p.m.