Sunday, September 12, 2010

Border factories caught in drug war's crossfire

By Lynn Brezosky - San Antonio Express-News















McALLEN — The head of an association of border factory owners Thursday said the sector is in crisis mode as unrelenting drug violence in northern Mexico has spooked investors into curtailing operations at some plants and rethinking expansion at others.

“In February, there was a total loss of civil control in Reynosa and it's never been re-established,” said Dan McGrew, president of the Reynosa Association of Maquiladoras and Manufacturers. “We're in the worst of all worlds.”

McGrew spoke at a conference of the Border Trade Alliance that featured U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin as the keynote speaker.

It also was attended by U.S. Reps. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

While many at the meeting bemoaned that long wait times at border bridges continue to crimp cross-border trade, McGrew's comments brought home the devastating effect of fear and instability on the manufacturing sector's bottom line.

According to McGrew, 80 percent of his members reported reduced productivity, shift adjustments to protect workers and limited visits by customers and vendors.

He said 20 percent had put projects on indefinite hold or canceled them all together.

“Our people are under constant stress — low-grade stress — 100 percent of their day,” he said of the 120 companies that belong to his group. “We're not being targeted, but we are collateral damage.”

Maquilas, or foreign-owned factories, employ about 1.2 million workers in Mexico, and managers of those in the Reynosa area tend to settle into gated communities in McAllen and Mission, helping make the region one of the fastest growing in the United States.

But Reynosa, just across the border, has been one of the bloodiest fronts in a series of turf wars for smuggling routes to the U.S. marketplace.

Gunbattles and grenade attacks — at times in broad daylight and near schools — have occasionally paralyzed Reynosa and other cities, making tourist visits and nightlife a distant memory.

Video snippets of one hours-long battle between cartel soldiers and Mexican military now play out over the Internet. Reynosa's media have been muzzled by kidnappings and threats.

Things escalated again in June when Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a leading candidate for the governorship of the state of Tamaulipas, was assassinated, along with several aides, while on the campaign trail. Mexican President Felipe Calderón said the attack was orchestrated by drug operatives attempting to control the elections.

Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Co., said not even he crosses the border casually these days.

“If I want to go to La Fogata (restaurant) to eat, I've probably got to go with you,” he said in a question directed at FBI special agent Jorge Cisneros, a panelist on a discussion on business and security.

Vale said one industrial park lost $200 million worth of commitments.

“Do you really see any hope for us to be able to go back to some semblance of normality any time soon?” he asked Cisneros.

Cisneros had no soothing words.

“It's probably going to get worse before it gets any better,” he said.

Bersin, the commissioner, spoke of an agencywide “paradigm shift” aimed at bettering the balance between trade and security.

But even he said it could take Mexico 30 years to emerge from its gangland present, just is it took the United States time to shake off organized crime.

“It took us a generation to build a law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level that's the envy of the world,” he said. “We didn't always have that honesty.”

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