Three thousand litres of acid were spilled into the Mar de Cortes off the coast of the state of Sonora this year when a valve broke while loading sulphuric acid onto a ship in a port owned by Grupo México, Mexico’s largest Mexican mining company.
A video of this spill - in which the acid silently sizzles on the water and a cloud of white smoke spirals up into the sky - is currently circulating on social media.
The spill spreads slow death amongst the underwater fauna of one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. The frightfully under-dramatic images in this video will quickly fade from memory, compared to the disaster images we are all bombarded with these days in Hollywood blockbuster movies.
The last Hollywood blockbuster movie I saw in Mexico City was The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. The film is a story about an astronaut mistakenly left behind during a mission to Mars and all the measures taken afterwards to rescue him.
The Martian focuses on the compassion and ingenuity of NASA as their super-intelligent, multicultural employees help solve the nearly impossible task of rescuing the stranded astronaut. Spending billions of taxpayers’ money and risking the lives of several astronauts to save one is brushed aside as inconsequential or, even worse, as patriotic.
The “no-man-left-behind” mission provides the simplistic plot for the film, one in which know-how and guts save the day, much like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. The focus on rescuing human beings in Black Hawk Down, however, is just a distraction from the reason why elite military units are even there in the first place (namely, to illegally kidnap an insurgent).
The Martian’s focus on the mission to save the character played by Matt Damon provides motivation sufficient enough to never actually have to explain or even mention what these American astronauts were doing there. In the first scene, however, before things go wrong, we see the astronauts taking soil samples.
Since the futuristic Total Recall - directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger - in which many of the scenes were shot in Mexico City, mines on Mars have also long been a staple of Hollywood action films.
The interest in outer-space mining, far from being a fiction, has everything to do with the fact that Mars has become a tempting investment option for the wealthiest corporations on Earth, and it is an integral aspect, perhaps the largest motivation, of NASA’s future missions.
I went to see The Martian in a multiplex theater in Mexico City. Unlike cinemas of old that boasted giant marquees announcing the film being shown to all passersby, my local movie multiplex is tucked away deep inside a full-block, bunker-like mall. To get to the theater I have to walk through several aisles of Sanborns, a national chain of stores that is a book store, electronics outlet, pharmacy, restaurant and café in one.
After passing by dozens of large-screen monitors - themselves on sale and advertising Hollywood blockbusters for sale on Blu-Ray - I still have to take an escalator up to the second floor. There I step off directly into the furniture section of a Sears stores and still must make my way through several nearly identical middle-class living rooms to actually before I get to the multiplex.
Decorated with neon lights and a snack area, my local movie theatre is nothing more than eight identical theatres behind eight doors that open out from a long hallway, more of less identical to any multiplex in Idaho or Acapulco.
There are commercials for both Sears and Sanborns before the feature presentation and mixed in with the coming attractions. Sears was originally a US company and opened its first store in Mexico in 1947, but since 1989 it is a Mexican company and now has 75 stores all over Mexico. Sanborns has 90 stores in Mexico City alone, with dozens in other cities around the country.
Identical stores of both of these chains share space in identical malls all over the country, with their ads projected onto identical Cinemex screens in each one of them.
The next commercial comes from a completely different world, a corporate promotional about a copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, in northern Mexico. This high-budget, well-produced ad proudly presented giant, state-of-the-art trucks driving around a clean, open-air mine near futuristic dome structures. There were also close ups of several happy workers and a voice-over which praises the corporation’s treatment of workers and its environmentally friendly activities.
The Sonora copper mine featured in the commercial turns out to be the largest in Mexico and is owned by Grupo México, which is led by German Larrea Mota, Mexico’s Copper King and the fourth wealthiest man in the country - and the owner of Cinemex. Carlos Slim, one of the world’s wealthiest men, directs a vast media empire and also owns copper mines in Cananea, Sonora, and is the owner of Sanborns.
Besides projecting the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies in its 200 Cinemex theaters around the country, Grupo México is involved in the exploration, exploitation, and commercialization of metallic and non-metallic ores. Its mission, as stated on its website, is "based on … respect, honesty, responsibility, and professional ethics; we strive to generate the best value for our stockholders, customers, suppliers, personnel, and the communities where we operate, with high safety rates, preserving the ecological balance."
Grupo México has been found responsible and fined by the EPA for environmental damage in 20 of its sites across the US, and has been involved in serious environmental disasters in Europe, despite its claims to be “preserving ecological balance.”
In Mexico, Grupo México’s track record is even worse. The recent spill of acid into the Mar de Cortes, which will likely create a chain of death amongst the local sea fauna, is only one of a long list of disasters the company has produced. Earlier this year another of Grupo México’s mines dumped 20,000 liters of water contaminated with toxic sediments into a river in the state of Zacatecas.
Business as usual
Grupo Mexico’s most dramatic spill, however, occurred in 2014, when the company’s Buenavista del Cobre mine in Sonora spilt 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate into the Sonora River, creating what is considered the largest environmental disaster in Mexico's history. The company’s workers have gone on strike at least fourteen times not only for higher pay but also “because of its constant refusal to review security and health measures" (almost half of the workers have no insurance or health care).
On 19 February 2006, an explosion occurred in the Pasta de Conchos coalmine in San Juan de Sabinas, Coahuila, also owned by Grupo México, and an estimated 65 miners were trapped underground, their bodies never recovered.
In October 2015, eight months after an earlier incident caused five deaths and after repeated protests over possible environmental disasters and unsafe working conditions, another of Grupo Mexico’s mines collapsed in the state of San Luis Potosí with 60 miners inside.
Grupo México’s ad - shown on hundreds of movie screens across the nation just weeks after the later accident - was obviously part of the company’s strategy to reopen the mine and get back to business without being bothered by strikes or the interference of environmentalists.
US and Canadian companies own 70 percent of the mines in Mexico and are thus even more responsible than Grupo México for pillaging the country’s mineral resources, polluting its rivers and farmlands, and endangering the lives of its workers. Five states in Mexico have sold off 20 percent of their land to mining companies, another five states have sold over 30 percent and one has handed over 40 percent of its territories to foreign and national mining corporations, companies that pay a minuscule percentage of their earnings to the state and federal government (Grupo México reported over a billion dollars in profits in 2018).
Mines are not producers but are instead mere machines that extract minerals from the land. The crude extraction of precious metals from the soil of Mexico has been going on since the first arrival of Europeans in the Americas and the Conquistador’s metalism fever continues today, with more gold being extracted each year by foreign and Mexican-owned mines than during the five hundred years of Spanish colonialism in the New World.
Environmental disasters grow apace and the companies, both foreign and national, after they have sucked dry the earth, leave nothing except a deadly dose of heavy metals within the ground and water supply.
As I watched the opening scenes of The Martian I couldn’t help but be reminded of the commercial I had just seen. The reddish, desert planet of Mars portrayed in The Martian, shot on location in the deserts of Jordan, looks remarkably like the copper mines in Cananea, Sonora and the state-of-the-art digging and extracting machines and the glass and metal domes were also quite similar.
The feature film and the commercials not only shared similar locations and equipment, they also were selling a vision of the world at odds with reality.
The world projected in the commercials of Sears and Sanborns and the Hollywood blockbuster films shown in Cinemex’s multiplexes are all part of a consumer fantasy that completely ignores the violent nature of global capitalism and the aggressive pursuit of greater profits by extracting metals from the Earth.
In the end, the ‘magic of cinema’ that Hollywood and Cinemex promote is merely a well-produced audio-visual screen designed to hide the mass destruction of the planet by corporations affiliated with these media giants.
Kurt Hollander is originally from New York City, lived in Mexico for over 25 years, and is currently living in Cali, Colombia. He is writer and fine art/documentary photographer.
Image: Copper mine in Cananea, Sonora. Geo-Mexico.