For the small group of women entrepreneurs, it was a dream come true. One of the world's biggest super market chains - as part of its much-vaunted community initiative - wanted to sell the co-operative's collection of natural beauty products, made from nopal and xoconostle or prickly pear, cacti that grow in abundance around one of Mexico's most important ancient pilgrimage sites - the pyramids of Teotihuacan.
But now the women believe they have been duped by Wal-Mart, the US-based retailing giant which, they say, desperately needed to portray itself as a good citizen after it caused national outrage by building a new store within the boundaries of the Teotihuacan archeological zone, a 2000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site whose name means "The Place Where Gods Were Made" and which receives more than two million visitors a year.
"Before the store opened, Wal-Mart asked us to start making the products - 200 a month - as soon as possible," a member of the cooperative told the Sunday Herald. "We are only a small outfit and this was an important deal for us, we had to take out a loan to get it all done on time. When we finished, we tried to contact them to arrange delivery but they never answer our calls and have never paid us. We have tried to contact them for months but nobody wants to help us. Wal-Mart said that it would promote regional producers in the new store. We realize now that they were just using us so they can say on their website that they are working with the community."
Wal-Mart has been the subject of a string of lawsuits in the US ranging from bullying to discrimination. Its new Mexican store, which operates under the Bodega Aurrera brand, has prompted heated debate over convenience versus culture.
Some argue that inhabitants of the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacan should not face a 15-mile journey to their nearest supermarket and that the 180 jobs Wal-Mart says it has brought are vital for local families. But protesters claim the building damages the integrity of the 2000-year-old site and that both local government officials and representatives from the National Institute of Archaeology and History (NIAH), the state body charged with safeguarding Mexico's archeological sites, colluded with Wal-Mart to fast-track the store, located at a strategic point just off the highway bringing visitors to the site.
Emma Ortega, a longtime resident of Teotihuacan, approximately 40 miles north of Mexico City, describes herself as one of the ruined city's spiritual guardians. She is one of the most vociferous members of the campaign to close the store. Now recovered following a three-week hunger strike she and other members of the Civic Front for the Defense of Teotihuacan undertook to try and stop the opening of the 20-aisle store which local market traders fear will put them out of business, she says that by allowing the construction within zone C of the protected archeological zone, NIAH is breaking the law.
She listed a number of irregularities that "in other circumstances would automatically mean the end of the project" and cannot understand why, after a number of remains were found on the site, the project was not shelved.
"Without a doubt this store has been built on land that was once part of the ancient city. Recent excavations have found tombs, part of a plaza, ceramic shards and an altar which was dated at 450AD. This proves that this is an important site and yet the authorities who originally said that all such findings were important seem to have changed their minds.
"What is the point of having an exclusion zone if you are going to ignore it when someone with enough money comes along? It is clear that the government is turning a blind eye and selling the country's heritage to whoever is prepared to pay the most. NIAH's director should resign."
The decision to allow Wal-Mart - owners of the Asda supermarket chain in the UK - to build the store is shrouded in secrecy. Even though the site is listed by UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund as being of international importance, the original go-ahead was apparently taken by the local head of NIAH without being referred to a senior federal authority. Then, in a still unexplained twist, it emerged that the official responsible resigned a few days later, only for her replacement to be murdered shortly afterwards.
Bizarrely, the NIAH and the local authorities each claim that the other is responsible for issuing permits. The matter has been complicated by an apparently fluid interpretation of the law which has allowed a rash of building - including shops, a luxurious gated residential compound and a hotel - to go unchallenged within the protected zone in recent years. This, argue those in favor of the new store, means that one more building will not be a cause for concern.
Wal-Mart declined to comment. But its website highlights its work with local communities. It prides itself on being a socially responsible company, pointing to the fact that for three years running it has been recognized as such by the Mexican Center for Philanthropy. This national organization was established by the millionaire Mexican businessman Manuel Arango who has devoted himself to good works - since selling the Bodega Aurrera chain to Wal-Mart.
To the protesters' dismay, UNESCO has accepted NIAH's assessment that the store is not likely to damage the archeological site. But several NIAH staff contacted by the Sunday Herald say they feel betrayed by the institute and some of Mexico's best known writers and artists including Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska and British painter Leonora Carrington have signed a petition against the development.
Sergio Raul Arroyo, NIAH's director, admitted that the store has a bad reputation, but he could not explain how, in spite of such opposition, the government has apparently failed to intervene.
He told the Sunday Herald: "We cannot take into account moral or sentimental issues. We are dealing with a tremendously powerful company here. We don't have the money to fight this."
© 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limited