MATAMOROS, Mexico — Domingo Gonzalez and Jose Magdaleno Rodriguez, two well-dressed environmental activists, appeared out of place amid the acrid smoke, gulls and ragged scavengers at the city garbage dump here.
But they still fought through tears and burning lungs to poke through piles and piles of plastic car parts, asbestos, acetate, rubber and other industrial materials.
They were hunting for evidence to show that some of the largest corporations in the United States and Mexico might be to blame for illegal dumping just south of the border. Gonzalez calls it his weekly toxic tour.
Meanwhile, nearby in the sleepy Texas border town of Brownsville, Maria Guadelupe Esparza, 25, sat in her lawyer's office and helped to further explain the environmentalists' labors.
She said she was one of 16 mothers paid at least $100,000 each in a $17-million settlement last year with 40 U.S. and Mexican manufacturers.
The companies make everything from windshield wipers to hydrofluoric acid with cheap Mexican labor.
Esparza and the other mothers accused the firms in a 1993 civil lawsuit of killing or deforming more than a dozen newborn babies with factory emissions and the burning of toxic waste at the Matamoros dump.
"The moment they cut the umbilical cord, my baby died," Esparza said. Her child suffered from anencephaly, a birth defect that the lawsuit linked to toxic emissions.
But she and others hope that such problems are in the past.
In the last two years, fueled largely by environmental requirements of the North American Free Trade Agreement and by the out-of-court settlement in the Brownsville case, the mentality that created an environmental nightmare along the U.S.-Mexican border is changing, they say.
The shift is incremental. As Gonzalez routinely and easily proves each week, illegal dumping continues apace in places such as Matamoros, which, during the debate over the North American trade accord, had become emblematic of border environmental woes.
But the self-styled environmentalist said the volume of discarded toxins is a fraction of what it would have been without NAFTA.
Some of the worst corporate offenders that helped turn parts of Matamoros' "Chemical Row" into a wasteland have left; others have begun to change the way they do business outside the reach of U.S. environmental laws.
Even Esparza, who gave birth to a healthy girl a year after her other child died, said she believes that the border companies--known here as maquiladoras--are improving.
"I want to think they have changed," she said. "When I lost the baby, I started drinking more bottled water, eating healthier foods and visiting the doctor regularly. And my new baby is very healthy. If I can change, I figure they can too."
For the companies that settled with the mothers--without admitting guilt or fault--the change has been complex, costly and slow.
But it has begun at the sprawling Finsa industrial complex here. Opened in 1967, it quickly attracted U.S. and Mexican companies in search of cheap labor.
The complex now is home to 22 factories that employ 20,000 people at an average wage of $26 for a six-day workweek.
In the years since the lawsuit--and since NAFTA took effect, inspiring tougher environmental enforcement for companies operating south of the border--Felipe Fernando Paulin, the complex's environmental director, said the factories have spent millions of dollars on sewage treatment, environmental studies and limited cleanup projects.
The centerpiece of its environmental effort is a $1-million pilot sewage-treatment plant. It is among the first efforts underwritten by the North American Development Bank, a lender created under the free-trade accord to finance border environmental projects.
"Since NAFTA, everything is on display," Paulin said. "You can't hide anything. . . . Our aim is to create ecological industry."
Environmentalists in the agencies created under the trade accord to monitor the border--and even activists such as Gonzalez and Magdaleno--praised the treatment facilities installed by General Motors as indications of growing corporate consciousness.
They also said they are pleased with efforts by companies in the Matamoros industrial park to clean up a badly polluted canal running through the complex.
The canal flows into worker slums nearby, where, Gonzalez said, "almost everybody has some kind of respiratory problems and skin problems."
"The changes [to improve the environment] are never dramatic," Gonzalez added. "They happen very, very slowly."
But the mess in Matamoros--and at other border sites--is huge.
It will take a long time to clean up. Meanwhile, it is dirty business as usual for other firms, he and others said.
During their search this day, Gonzalez and Magdaleno found a wealth of documents amid solid wastes banned from the dump--the paper records suggesting violations by some of the largest factories in the nearby industrial park.