The Cost of a Cold Beer in Mexico

Conflicting rationalities and structural violence in international planning 

By Mary Stycos


Social media’s boycott against Constellation Brands. Source: Mexicali Resiste Facebook

The US rights to the Mexican beer brands Corona, Modelo, Victoria, and Pacífico are owned by Constellation Brands, the largest beer import company in the United States. Since the company bought the Mexican brands in 2013, Constellation has had its sights set on Mexicali, located in the Mexican state of Baja California, for its $1.5 billion new brewery complex, slated to make more than 132 million gallons of beer a year. It takes about 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer (Alter 2009), and Constellation predicts it will use 396 million gallons annually, “the same amount it would take to supply more than 14,000 people with running water” (Philpott 2018).  Currently, 300,000 Baja Californians live without regular access to water and nearly 6% of households lack running water.

It is within this context that the movement “Mexicali Resiste” was formed. Following massive protests in response to a gas hike and the formation of camps that successfully shut down the state government, the Mexicali organizers created a movement that now serves as a watchdog against the government. The movement uncovered that the Baja California government had secretly made a water supply deal with Constellation, and subsequently, it has used blockades, weekly public assemblies, and social networks to create a culture of documentation and transparency within the state administration. Despite facing severe state-supported violence from police and imprisonment of its leaders, Mexicali Resiste has grown into a fierce and diversified movement that is clearly making those in power uncomfortable. The movement has even crossed the border, forcing US consumers to pay attention. Protests have spread to the Mexican consulate in San Diego, and resistance artwork has appeared in the historically Mexican neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. In a reversal of traditional power dynamics, Mexicali Resiste, from the South, is awakening consciousness, creating spinoff resistance movements, and having an impact on the North.


Social mobilization for water struggle. Source: Mexicali Resiste Facebook

The Mexicali government and Constellation both hail the potential positive economic impact of the new project, claiming that if the brewery plans do not go through, “the region will lose out on an estimated 5,000 jobs, 4,000 of those directly from the construction of the brewery. This represents over $77 million lost in annual labor income” (Trenaman 2018). However, such a “development” and “improvement” project might “mean disruption and destabilization of their way of life… development should not mean more work, more headaches” (Cavalcanti 90). Additionally, the brewery will import US-produced hops and barley instead of purchasing from local farmers. The brewery’s model has been compared to the extractive, ecologically damaging maquiladora model: imported components, low-wage local labor, goods made for exportation, and very little long-term sustainable growth and economic development for the local economy (Philpott 2018). Their protest is important, particularly within an ever-increasing trend towards the privatization of water sources in Mexico’s neoliberal reform strategy, because it forces explanations from those in power and holds them accountable for their decisions. As Mexicali Resiste activist Galaz Duarte remarks, “Basically this government has based its business model around selling the public’s water…In this model, anything can be bought. Everything has a price” (Zaragoza 2018).


Protesters send the message that “The brewery offers us crumbs for our dignity and water” in Mexicali. Photo credit: Revista Ave Fénix

The municipality of Mexicali and its citizens are approaching the Constellation Brewery construction with two conflicting rationalities. Watson (2008) introduces the concept of “clashing rationalities” to explain the increasing polarization between the state and its (poor) citizens. The local government, so concerned with attracting foreign capital and further industrial development, appears to be promoting “modernist views of urban form which property developers can support and…which can be used in opportunistic ways by those with political and economic power” (Watson 2008, 2262). By giving water concessions to Constellation Brewery, the municipal administration is positioning the city “globally” to attract new investment (2265). As explained in Dupont (2011), many cities aspire to the Western ideal of the “global city”, seeking a “high level of internationalization in their economy and in their broader social structure” (535). But, under the guise of rising up as a powerful city in the new global order, “calculated attempts at the world- or global-city formation can have devastating consequences for most people…especially the poorest, in terms of service provision, equality of access, and redistribution” (535). So while the municipality feels its decisions are justified by market-oriented rationality, the residents and farmers of Mexicali Resiste are pushing in the opposite direction. The resistance draws on “vitalist” rationality that strives for “synergies of the biological, the spatial, the social, and the spiritual… The goal is to reach ‘higher stages of development’ for humanity and the nation-state…” (Fält 2016, 469).

Mexicali Resiste’s insurgence is a consequence of structural violence, a term originally coined by Johan Galtung (1969) to explain how violence is built into a system through unequal power dynamics and unequal life chances. From Farmer’s (2003) perspective, human rights violations are “symptoms of deeper pathologies of power and are linked intimately to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm”. The persistent, officially-supported continuation of inequality determines that certain groups will be disproportionately at risk for assault, and others will be continuously shielded. The resistance of Mexicali Resiste is in direct response to the blatant structural violence committed by the partnership between Constellation Brands and the Baja California government.

The goal of the protesters is not only to stop the construction of the brewery and the assault on their water supply and livelihoods, but also to unapologetically draw attention to and expose the “conflict of rationalities” between “the rationalities of governing and administration, and rationalities of survival (of those who are poor and marginalized)” (Watson 2272). Mexicali Resiste’s actions are the essence of critical planning; they are loudly challenging historical and existing power inequities in order to advocate for the less powerful, vulnerable voices so often excluded. Their brash solidarity is a force for change in planning. It reminds persistent perpetrators of violence that their targets are not passive and silent, but instead a dynamic force that insists on being considered, valued, and heard.