Mexican Business Leaders Seek Border-Policy Voice

Mexican business leaders seek border-policy voice

By Sandra Dibble and Diane Lindquist
October 13, 2006

MEXICALI Booming cities along Mexico's northern border can be the tractor that pulls the country's economy forward. But drug trafficking, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, migration and other problems threaten that promise, business leaders from across the region warned yesterday.

Their call came at an unprecedented forum in the Baja California capital that has drawn together hundreds of private sector participants from all along the 2,000-mile border. By speaking out for the first time on common issues, they hope to become a strong voice on public policy in the region and make the federal government take notice.

Up to now, we've been isolated voices, saying the same thing, and we'd never get anywhere, said Reginaldo Esquer, president of Mexicali's Business Coordinating Council, an influential umbrella group that is hosting the event, dubbed the First Northern Border Forum. The north should be the motor of the country, the great tractor so that it can move from where it is.

Mexican President Vicente Fox and billionaire entrepreneur Carlos Slim were among the forum participants yesterday. But the man whom organizers hope to reach with their message, President-elect Felipe Caldern canceled an appearance planned for today, citing a scheduling conflict.

Mexico's northern border has long been ruled by market forces, said Jorge Santibaez, president of the Tijuana-based think tank Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Business leaders speaking out together about social issues is a significant change, Santibaez said.

Far from Mexico's ruling center, the northern border has long operated on its own economic and social dynamic, and communities are often more closely linked to the dollar economy than the Mexican peso.

Investment from the United States, Japan, Korea and Europe has fueled job creation and growth in recent years after implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement gave more security to foreign investment.

Today, the six northern border states Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas produce about one quarter of the country's gross national product, and account for 15 percent of Mexico's population of 107 million people.

Fast-growing border communities often can't keep pace with their rapid population growth, creating a lack of paved streets, schools and sewage treatment. Insufficient infrastructure such as border crossings, ports, airports, railroads and highways stunts the region's business potential.

They don't help us, they don't pay attention to us, but the north grows in spite of this lack of attention, said Ernesto Ruffo, a former Baja California governor scheduled to address the group today. The region's unique cross-border economic dynamics are often misunderstood in Mexico City and Washington, he said.

Ruffo was named Mexico's first commissioner of the northern border by President Fox, but the commission was shut down after Ruffo resigned, expressing frustration that in the capital, they listen to us, but they don't understand us.

As Caldern prepares to take office Dec. 1, he faces the tough challenge of creating opportunities in the country's poorest regions in the southern and central states. Some forum participants said they fear Caldern will become so absorbed in the south's problems that his government will fail to address issues in the relatively prosperous north.

We both have a commitment, that the country must not waste a single minute, that the effort of Mexicans should not be set back, Fox said.

Within a month, the forum's organizers plan to prepare a document for Caldern that lists the priorities they see for the northern border. Esquer said these could include the building of an east-west highway from Tijuana to Laredo, strategies for drawing more tourism to the border, and help in dealing with the large numbers of migrants that end up in border communities.

Up to now, all we've thought about is work, and haven't been concerned about other things, said Gabriel Flores, head of the Ciudad Juarez Business Coordinating Council. But now there are some real issues that we border residents need to address.

Many cited an urgent need to measure up to and surpass foreign competitors, including China, which in the past five years has flooded Mexico with inexpensive goods and lured away hundreds of its factories.

While Mexico is struggling with a transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy, China has rapidly progressed from an agrarian economy to a high-tech powerhouse.

China skipped a step, Slim said.

The northern border is trying to make that same transition, he noted.

It can compete with any region in the world, but in the long term, any plan for the border has to be integrated with the rest of the country, Slim said.

Northerners are known for their directness, and Flores did not mince words. Federal agencies often assume that those in the north can take care of themselves and focus aid efforts in the impoverished south, he said.

Flores, who is also president of the Chamber of Industry in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, said that when heavy rains recently left the city flooded, it received few federal resources.

They think, 'They have a lot of money, they can take care of themselves,' he said.

But by far the biggest common concern borderwide is public safety. The leaders of the business coordinating councils of the two largest border cities, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, boycotted the event's opening attended by Fox.

Both have vowed that they won't attend any public events until the government agencies start cooperating and the federal government pours more resources into fighting crime along the border.