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How visitors from Germany may have triggered a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a Juárez maquiladora

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By Gabriela Minjáres and Itzel Ramírez/La Verdad

This article was produced by La Verdad, an independent news organization in Ciudad Juarez that is collaborating with El Paso Matters on regional coverage.

Rigoberto Tafoya Maqueda, a worker at the Lear Corporation Río Bravo maquiladora, left his home on his own foot on Sunday, April 5, to seek emergency medical attention because he had difficulty breathing. He thought he was suffering complications in allergies diagnosed a few days earlier in the company’s office and by two other private doctors.

Five days later, on Friday, April 10, he died at Region 66 General Hospital of the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) with another diagnosis: coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“He was working because he had inventory. (The company) did not tell him that he was sick, they did not protect him,  they did not have a mask, gloves or anything. They didn’t give them anything, not gel or anything, he never came here (to the house) with masks or anything,” says Susana García Tafoya, Rigoberto’s niece.

IMSS officials haven’t confirmed the diagnosis, even though they gave her the ashes of her uncle on April 16. Susana said there are many questions about the origin of the contagion at the Lear plant, which has killed 13 other workers there.

“I demanded the tests in the Insurance and they did not give them to me, they just said that it is probable (that it is coronavirus), but at no time have they confirmed it. Nor are we sure where he contracted the disease,” said Susana, who lived with Rigoberto in a house located in the Río Bravo subdivision, two kilometers from the Lear maquiladora.

All she knows is that other workers also died in the coronavirus outbreak at the plant. Employees and relatives of employees who were sickened by the virus believe that the infections occurred after the visit of a group of Europeans at the plant in the midst of a pandemic.

Five of the workers who died at a Lear Corporation auto parts plant in Ciudad Juárez. Photographs provided by their families.

Rigoberto’s niece says that while her uncle was hospitalized, she heard that relatives of other hospitalized Lear employees suspect that the new virus arrived from Europe, specifically from Germany, where Lear also has several plants.

In addition, she says that her mother – Rigoberto’s sister – was told that just before the coronavirus outbreak at the company’s facilities, a group of Europeans visited.

The presence of foreign visitors in the company was confirmed by three workers at the Río Bravo Plant, who asked not to be identified because they fear retribution by Lear.

“Almost all those who died and were infected are from that area, where the foreign visitors were,” one of the workers said.

The other two workers agree. They said the maquila only had antibacterial gel available in the administrative offices, but not for the production areas. In mid-March Lear began taking temperatures of some employees, but only managers, supervisors and group leaders.

The link between the visit of foreigners and the outbreak of the virus was also confirmed by a Lear manager who works at another plant in Ciudad Juárez, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to give information.

“After this situation (from the visit of the foreigners) people started to get sick in the plant, they brought flu symptoms, but they got a lot of cough, it was a tosedera”, says the engineer by profession who knows and deals with Rio Bravo executives.

La Verdad asked Lear to comment on the visit of a group of Europeans to the Río Bravo plant and the origin of the contagion of the workers. However, the company said in a statement that it is “impossible to trace the origins of this pandemic in Ciudad Juárez.” They did not confirm or deny the visit of foreigners to the plant days before the outbreak.

Neither state and national IMSS executives, nor the health authorities in Chihuahua, answered questions about the origin or details of this outbreak in the maquiladora.

The statement from Lear Corporación Operaciones Mexicanas said that as of Feb. 4, travel restrictions and visitor scans were established at Juárez facilities. “Visitors to the plant followed security protocols and were subjected to questionnaires along with pre-entry scans,” the statement said.

In contrast to statements from Rigoberto’s niece and the workers, who insisted that preventive health and hygiene measures were not implemented in the plant’s common areas, the company said workers died despite protocols established to prevent coronavirus.

Lear said the entire plant was disinfected on March 1 and improved cleaning protocols were initiated until production was stopped on March 27. All work activities were completed on April 1, the company adds.

By the time production stopped at the Río Bravo Plant, witnesses from the two shifts said there were already several sick employees with fever, cough, muscle and headache, all symptoms linked to COVID-19.

Several of them, the workers said, went to the company’s office for a medical check-up, where they were told it was the flu or allergies, offered pain relievers and asked them to return to work.

One of those cases was that of Adela García, one of the workers who died from coronavirus. According to one of her friends, she went to the doctor’s office at the plant at least three times during the week of March 23 to 27, the last one she worked. Each time she was told she had nothing and to return to her work area.

Adela’s partner says a nurse asked her to “not be going every day” to the infirmary because they had already told her that she was fine, although the worker could barely walk and breathe.

One day after her workday ended, on Saturday, March 28, Adela went to a private doctor for a checkup and on Sunday, March 29, she worsened, so she was hospitalized in serious condition at Hospital 66 of the IMSS, where she died on Tuesday, April 7.

Lear Corporation’s Rio Bravo manufacturing plant in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by Alejandro Sánchez)

Ground zero of contagion

Spread across 114 countries and with more than 118,000 cases registered in the world, the coronavirus was considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a pandemic on March 11, in the middle of the week in which the  Europeans visited Lear’s Río Bravo Plant in Ciudad Juárez.

Using statements of half a dozen workers and their families, this story aims to reconstruct what happened in the maquiladora that manufactures car seat covers, where 13 people have died to date, according to official data from the health authorities in Chihuahua. An undetermined number of other people were infected with COVID-19 at the plant.

One more worker died this week in El Paso, where he was taken for medical attention, without being counted in the state’s figures for the disease.

Toward the beginning of March, Lear offered its workers double shifts for a specific task: cleaning and inventory of BR, an area where car seats are produced for the Mercedes-Benz brand, a German company that makes luxury vehicles.

Sara – whose name has been changed because she fears retaliation — accepted the extra time. The goal was to leave the area clean and ready for visitors.

From Monday, March 9 to Friday, March 13, the factory that employed 2,800 workers  in two shifts, was visited by a group of foreigners in the production area.

Workers said the visitors were from Germany and were exclusively in BR, an area that workers from other modules go through to get to the cafeteria.

The presence of the group of more than four people caught the attention of workers in the other areas. They say that the visit took place over several days, mainly during the first shift and at the beginning of the second shift.

The week following the visit, the workers said personnel began to present symptoms of the coronavirus. They especially remember that many people were coughing.

“We all realized that we were beginning to get sick, because in the area where I am there were many sick people, with body aches and cough. We took it easy, we said that we already had the coronavirus, but we never thought that the virus really was there,” says one of the workers who also claims to have been ill.

On March 18, company personnel were posted at the plant entrance to take the temperature of employees, Sara said.

The testing didn’t use social distancing guidelines set by the Mexican federal government, according to a video shared with La Verdad. Only the first workers in the group were tested, she said. 

Lear provided a photo of the temperature checks. “Why did they (Lear) take the photo?  To say that they did check (temperatures). The reality is that they only checked the first ones,” Sara said.

Workers didn’t yet understand that there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the plant.

By March 20, when Lear announced a staggered work stoppage until April 3 and the return to work by May 4, the main concern for many workers was their loss of income.  The company offered them 60 to 75 percent of their weekly pay while the plant was closed.

When workers signed the agreement with Lear to agree to lower their pay, they were not informed that there was suspicion of infected workers.

“They just told us that we were going to leave by agreement because there was no material and because of the pandemic, to keep us a week at home. They never told us there were suspicious cases,” a worker said.

By March 25, when most activity at the plant stopped, there were already several people with fever and cough.

One of the workers interviewed says that Adela García, who was her friend, started with symptoms on Tuesday, March 24.

She says that Adela, who worked in leather designs in the BR area, was very popular because she sold food at the plant, which is why she toured most of the modules and had contact with many workers.

“Most of those who have died are from that area, from BR. They have died from other places, from 625 there are about three, but almost all of BR got sick. That’s why in the plant we say the virus was left there by the people who were visiting,” the friend said.

This worker said that she herself was ill and on the last day of work, Wednesday, March 25, she went to the infirmary to be checked because she felt that she had a temperature, her head and body ached. She was told she had nothing and returned to her area. She said her experience was the same as Adela’s, who was told three times that she was fine when she went to ask for medical help.

A similar situation occurred with Rigoberto Tafoya, who, according to his niece, also went to the company’s infirmary and was told that he had an allergy. On the last day he worked, Friday, April 3, he returned to the infirmary because he had difficulty breathing and was asked to go to the hospital.

Entry gates to Lear Corporation’s Rio Bravo manufacturing plant in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by Alejandro Sánchez)

They didn’t take care of us, workers say

Despite the history of visits from abroad in the midst of the pandemic, no protective measures were taken for the workers at the Rio Bravo plant, workers said.

Sara recalled how she and other operators asked the union to have gel in the common areas of the plant and not just in the infirmary. They were told that the use of antibacterial gel was not allowed. Employees had to wash their hands in restrooms, which required them to leave their work space.

The gel, on the other hand, was available for administrative and office areas.

“Whether there is a virus or not, there should always be antibacterial gel. In the offices they did have their gelecito and we did tell the union about that,” Sara said.

Julián, a plant engineer, agrees that no face masks or antibacterial gel were distributed on the production lines.

Other workers say that the union delegate for the evening shift, Guillermo Chávez, always carried his antibacterial gel and he also had it in his office. Despite this, he was killed by the virus.

Chávez’s death was confirmed by Jesús José Díaz Monárrez, Secretary General of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the union for Lear sewing workers.

Diaz said that as of  Monday he had a record of 15 Lear employees in Juárez who have died as a result of COVID-19, 13 of them at the Río Bravo plant and another two at the one located in San Lorenzo. State officials have not confirmed that count.

The total Lear death toll from COVID-19 in Juárez would be 16 with the death this week of Raúl Rosales in El Paso, where he was transferred by his family in an attempt to save his life.

Díaz Mónárrez, the labor leader whose organization represents 50,000 workers in the Juárez and currently works as a councilor in the Juárez City Council, said he does not know the origin of the outbreak because the company has informed him that the workers began to get sick after the plant shut down.

He said he has been in contact with the plant’s human resources personnel, who provided him a list of the names of the first five who died and those who were hospitalized.

“First three died, then two others. It was then I asked to know what is happening. Is the contagion very serious? Yes, it is very serious, I think they had about eight or nine hospitalized….They sent me the list,” he said.

Lear said in a statement that it has been a challenge to obtain accurate and timely information about the health of its workers for several reasons, including because they are not working and because of the workload in the hospitals.

“Lear was notified of our first hospitalized employee on April 3, and there have been other hospitalizations and deaths since then. As we receive notifications of the state of health directly from the families of our employees, for their privacy we cannot confirm any figure at this time,” the statement said.

The statement said Lear will provide employees with the resources they need to stay safe and will continue to finance the medical care of those under treatment.

In addition, they announced that in Juárez, where Lear has 24,000 employees in 10 plants, factories will remain closed until they have a plan that allows workers to feel safe to return to their activities.

Meanwhile, for Lear’s workers, the outlook is uncertain. They are terrified of returning and getting coronaviruses, but they are also concerned about their economic situation and how long they can survive with the cut in wages.

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