Mexicans Hit Hard By U.S. Woes

Mexicans hit hard by US woes

By Robin Lustig
BBC's The World Tonight, Cancun
July 2, 2009

When 21-year-old Rigoberto was working on construction sites in the US, he could earn up to $400 a week.

Now that he is back home in Mexico, working as a farmhand, he makes just $65.

And that is why there are estimated to be between eight and 12 million Mexicans in the US.

It is also why the US economic crisis spells disaster for its southern neighbour.

I met Rigoberto in a pretty little town in central Mexico called Jungapeo. I also met Martin, who has three sons working in the US.

But times are hard for them too – and they can no longer afford to send money home to help him out.

Like millions of Mexicans, Rigoberto and Martin know what it feels like to be victims of a recession made in America.

Tourism hit hard

Here is a remarkable statistic: in the first three months of this year, more Mexicans crossed the border heading south – in other words, coming home – than in the opposite direction.

That is how bad it is.

In normal times, the money sent home from migrant workers north of the border is the second biggest source of revenue for the Mexican economy – and so far this year, it is down nearly 20%.

No wonder the overall economy is on course to shrink by nearly 6% this year.

So what about tourism, another major revenue earner?

It is another disaster.

In Cancun, the country's most popular holiday destination, I found the hotels and the beaches half-empty.

In April, when swine flu hit the headlines, the hotels emptied overnight, from an occupancy rate of 80%, down to less than 25%.

“This is going to be the worst summer season we have ever had,” says Rodrigo de la Pena, head of the Cancun Hotels Association.

Across the street, I met Vitoria, sitting forlornly outside her souvenir shop, next to piles of unsold straw hats.

“It is very bad,” she said. “First the economic crisis, and then the influenza. People don't come any more; they are too scared.”

'Message from narcos'

And if an economic crisis and swine flu aren't enough, what about Mexico's crime record?

The increasingly powerful drugs cartels were responsible for more than 6,000 murders last year, and although the Cancun tourists do not see it, the drugs violence is not far away from the beaches and the night spots.

After nightfall, a brave local journalist, Cesar Munoz, drove me to a quiet residential street where just two weeks ago three bodies were found in an abandoned car, their hands and feet tied.

It was, he told me, a message from the narcos.

And what was the message? “Mexico is at war. It is a war between the government, the army, and the narcos.”

A Pentagon study earlier this year concluded that Mexico was at risk of becoming a failed state, on a par with Pakistan.

This was roundly rejected by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who insisted his administration was winning the fight against the drug-traffickers.

With a population of 110 million, and an economy that ranks 13th in the world, Mexico is not a country that can be ignored.

Its border with the US is 3,000km (2,000 miles) long. Guns flow south, drugs flow north.

What worries the US is to what extent Mexico's violence can be contained south of the border.