By Kent Paterson
In the annals of border history, U.S.-Mexico relations and global commerce, Ciudad Juárez has often played a pivotal role. Nudged against El Paso, Texas, and Doña Ana County, New Mexico, the northern Mexican city has been a place of revolutions and political upheavals with international repercussions, the passageway of migrants to the promised land of El Norte, and a source of cheap labor that first contributed to industrializing the United States and was later employed to help deindustrialize it.
Dustily anchored in an arid land which begs for rain, Ciudad Juárez is nonetheless a place where juicy profits can be culled from the production, transportation and sale of countless commodities, which include human beings from nations the world over who are trafficked en route to the behemoth of the north.
If the powers-that-be have their way, Ciudad Juárez and its U.S. neighbors in the binational Paso del Norte-particularly New Mexicans- will perform an even bigger role on a revamped world economic stage.
Building on existing and evolving economic and political relationships, the promises, problems and paradoxes of Ciudad Juárez and the Paso del Norte were recently on animated display when Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard flew into the city of about 1.5 million inhabitants for what was billed as a binational encounter on migration and security.
Exuding the airs and ghosts of history, the July 30 event with invited members of the binational political and business classes was held at the city’s old customs house, an elegantly remodeled downtown building where Mexican President Porfirio Díaz and U.S. President Taft met in 1909. Nowadays, the building functions as the Museum of the Mexican Revolution (Muref), one of Mexico’s underpublicized cultural jewels.
Noticeably absent from the gathering, however, were migrants who continue arriving in Juárez from many crisis-ridden corners of the globe, like the Haitians who await their chance at political asylum across the border.
Kicking off the event, perhaps ironically, were personal and historical words from Mr. Francisco Villa. The security consultant is the grandson of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the Mexican revolutionary known for his 1916 attack on Columbus, New Mexico.
The speakers who followed Villa and preceded Chancellor Ebrard might seem, at first glance, strange bedfellows. Despite differences pervading the group which assembled at the Muref, the attendees share certain convergences in the economic and political realms. These include regularizing immigration, refocusing investment and production away from Asia to the U.S.-Mexico border region, and making the Paso del Norte a powerhouse of 21st century global commerce.
For some, Mexican President López Obrador’s emphasis on integrating the economies of the Americas and creating a North American Common Market figures into the equation. In this scenario, Mexico is viewed as an equal partner, not a subordinate neo-colony of the U.S. But given historic and contemporary economic and social asymmetries, the question stands of whether a more equitable partnership is possible at all.
In sorting out who will benefit and who won’t from this schema, as always the devil will be in the details.
The Muref Roster
On immigration, the Muref event featured a presentation by self-proclaimed Jesus lover Michelle Parrozzo, a former G.W. Bush administration official who oversees global support operations for the anti-human trafficking campaign waged by the Southern California-based non-governmental organization A21.org.
Parrozzo sketched out A21’s history since its founding in 2008, the group’s work with refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Europe and, most recently, a branching out to Mexico.
Claiming 40 million people are victims of human trafficking in the world, Parrozzo showed a jolting video and described A21 campaigns aimed at educating the public to assist in identifying and eradicating human trafficking. Thanking Chihuahua Governor María Eugenia Campos Galván and Ciudad Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar for their support, Parrozzo said, “We look forward with all the government officials here in furthering this campaign.”
Mexican Senator Rafael Espino de la Peña of President López Obrador’s Morena party spoke about the importance of El Otro Mexico, The Other Mexico, in providing work to Mexican immigrants in the U.S. as well as increased flows of money back home, where migrant remittances are expected to reach at least $50 billion in 2022, according to the latest projections from the Bank of Mexico. “Who here in Mexico doesn’t have a relative in the U.S.?” Espino queried.
But the senator from Chihuahua criticized a reliance on cheap labor, arguing for a consensus on a new economic model and a new industrial policy. Government, Espino said, should “invest in human capital.”
Offering another perspective, border economic developer Alan Russell, CEO and Chairman of Tecma, a firm with a strong Paso del Norte presence, introduced himself as a “border citizen.”
Employing the rising buzzword of “near-shoring,” Russell expounded on global trends he said favor the Paso del Norte’s geographic location and economic horizon, chief among them U.S. labor shortages, minimum wage increases in both the U.S. and China, supply chain disruptions from health, migrant and political crises, the Ukraine war, and oil price hikes.
“Now everything is coming back to regionalization,” he insisted, contending that events are recasting Mexico as “the darling of the global industrial sector.” Implored Russell, “Never before in the history of Mexico has there been this opportunity. We have to seize the moment.”
Advertising lower labor costs in Mexico, Russell’s company helps U.S. firms navigate the business environment south of the border. For Russell, a big spoiler could be Ciudad Juárez’s persistent violence and insecurity. According to the Ciudad Juárez news site nortedigital.mx, the Mexican border city experienced 111 homicides in July, a record month for 2022 so far. Overall Ciudad Juárez recorded 592 homicides between January and the end of July, the news organization reported.
Seconding Russell, Mayor Pérez agreed that Mexico and Ciudad Juárez are at the cusp of a “great historic opportunity,” a great leap forward if you will, that necessitates expanding the San San Jerónimo-Santa Teresa border crossing with New Mexico and improving the highway from the northwestern tip of Ciudad Juárez.
In concise fashion, Ebrard laid out four principal foreign policy objectives of the López Obrador administration. The former Mexico City Mayor (2006-12) advocated reframing migration as labor mobility, beginning with the 11 million Mexican nationals residing in the United States; investing in migrant-sending countries with the most “relative” poverty, with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras high on the list; and implementing arms control, concretely the brisk small arms exports from the U.S. to Mexico linked to thousands upon thousands of murders.
On this note, the 62-year-old chief of Mexico’s diplomatic corps praised the U.S. House of Representatives for its recent vote to renew the ban assault weapons.
Ebrard’s visit was organized by federal Congresswoman Maité Vargas Meraz who represents Ciudad Juárez. A member of the lower house of Congress’ Border Affairs Commission, Ms. Vargas, 32, is among the youngest members of the legislative body. The youngest member is another federal Congresswoman from Ciudad Juárez, 25-year-old Andrea Chávez Treviño.
Ebrard enjoys a long trajectory in Mexican politics, dating back to the 1970s. He is widely considered a possible successor to López Obrador if he vies for the presidency in 2024.
The Chancellor made it crystal clear that López Obrador and company were on board to expand the Paso del Norte’s key place in the global economy. “This is going to be the most active border in the world,” he predicted. “It already is, but it will be even more so.”
For Pérez and Ebrard, the preferred partner in this grand endeavor is up the old Camino Real in Santa Fe, not over in Austin. Both leaders directed barbs at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who, through a series of controversial actions like tying up border traffic last spring with secondary state inspections of commercial trucks entering from Mexico, has managed to infuriate the Mexicans.
“But fortunately, we have San Jerónimo–Santa Teresa, where there are very different politics than in Texas,” Mayor Perez.
Consequently, the big wager on Santa Teresa as the choice trade link was made this past spring when President Lopez Obrador and other Mexican officials announced that the New Mexico port of entry would serve as the nexus in greatly expanded shipping to and from the West Coast.
Following in the footsteps of previous New Mexico state governments which have promoted the San Jerónimo-Santa Teresa development in fits and starts, the Democratic administration of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is more than happy to don an enlarged border business mantle.
According to a recent article in the border commerce trade journal MexicoNow, the Lujan Grisham administration has already allocated $78 million in public investments for Santa Teresa highway, jetport and water infrastructure improvements, plus seeks another $170 million sought from the federal government for expansion purposes.
The Desert Glitter of Saint Teresa
Situated within minutes from Interstate 10 and the West Side of El Paso, the burgeoning border crossing/industrial complex of Santa Teresa/San Jerónimo is a far cry from the no-too-distant past when the cattle shipped from Mexico (still a brisk business at 500,000 animals per year, according to MexicoNow) constituted the principal commodity passing through the port-of-entry.
Since 2009, San Jerónimo on the Mexican side of the borderplex has hosted a massive Foxconn plant that manufactures computers for companies including Dell, HP and Apple. A historic catalyst in San Jerónimo -Santa Teresa’s growth, the border factory employs thousands of workers who endure frequently grueling- and potentially dangerous- commutes back and forth from the colonias of Ciudad Juárez.
Released last year in cooperation with the pro Santa Teresa development Border Industrial Association, a New Mexico State University study estimated that even during the apocalyptic first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 the Santa Teresa Port of Entry and the Santa Teresa Industrial Parks facilitated $24 billion in international merchandise trade.
During the two years prior to the epidemic, the comparable business handled jumped from $25.9 billion in 2018 to $30.4 billion in 2019. Moreover, since the early 2000s, Santa Teresa has grabbed an increasing share of the border trade registered in the El Paso District, leaping from having less than three percent of the total in 2003 to 25.9 percent by 2018, according to the study. The El Paso Port of Entry, meanwhile, dropped in volume proportionally.
If developing binational trade plans that hinge on Santa Teresa-San Jerónimo go through, expect El Paso to become less relevant.
Modern Santa Teresa sprawls as an industrial city in the desert amid yucca, creosote and roadrunners. The entity boasts a Union Pacific intermodal facility, the Doña Ana County International Airport, numerous company plants and warehouses, and even the National Weather Service’s El Paso forecast office.
Santa Teresa now counts a hotel, Travelodge by Wyndham (Remember when Travelodge was a budget hotel?), a diner that promises 24-hour service, and an immaculate Love’s truck stop that also offers 24-hour food service. After all, as MexicoNow recently reported, the Port of Entry saw a record 150,000 trucks in 2021- double the number from the previous two years.
To keep truckers’ bellies full, Love’s features racks of roasting, fat hot dogs, Chester’s Chicken on the Run, Godfather’s Pizza Express and the veritable Subway sandwiches. On a recent visit, the old Cream song “I Feel Free” wandered from the sound system, followed by Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
Musical and culinary tastes aside, Santa Teresa beams gold, silver and green. If Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows,” a take on the tune bellowed from Santa Teresa’s mesa might go, “You don’t need a border weatherman to tell you which way the money flows..”
The Other Color of Green
In an era of global economic disruption, widespread environmental destruction and existential climate crisis, green imperatives loom large everywhere but perhaps contain an extra dash of urgency in the Paso del Norte, an arid region where epic drought, stressed water resources of the Rio Grande/Bravo and binational aquifers, inadequate urban green spaces, and record high temperatures sizzle, scar and wither the land.
Although Environment per se was not on the agenda of Chancellor Marcelo Ebrard’s visit, it was impossible for the Mexican leader to avoid the issue, thanks to citizen activists.
Outside the Muref, several members of the Chamizal Defense Front awaited the Ebrard. The Front was formed to save and restore Ciudad Juárez’s deteriorated Chamizal Park, a strip of land bordering the Rio Grande that was finally ceded to Mexico in 1964 after a long-running boundary dispute between the U.S. and Mexico was settled.
According to Daniel Delgadillo, Chamizal Defense Front spokesman, the group showed up to the event in order to give Ebrard documents about their struggle, including a demand to dismiss the current head of the Mexican section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, for allegedly ceding a plot of Chamizal land to a foreign-owned electronics company. Ebrard is the official’s boss. Later on during the Muref event, a satisfied Delgadillo showed the reporter an official signature of document receipt from Ebrard’s team. Mission accomplished.
On the same day, during a subsequent meeting Ebrard held with women’s organizations, a woman representing the Mexican environmentalist group Rio Bravo Defense strolled up to the stage and delivered a letter to the senior Mexican official. The missive demanded the annulment and renegotiation of the 1906 Rio Grande agreement between Mexico and the U.S. because of its obsolescence, and the declaration of natural protected areas as a strategy to protect water in the transboundary Rio Grande/Basin.
Rio Bravo Defense also urged Mexico to sign the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Enacted in 2014, the United Nations sponsored treaty encourages the conservation and sustainable management of population and pollution stressed waterways, with the “special situation and needs of developing countries” in mind.
Neither Mexico nor the U.S. have bothered to sign the treaty.
Rio Bravo Defense posed the question: “What strategies does the government of Mexico via the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs have planned to guarantee the right to life, water and clean environment for all the Mexicans who reside along the big Rio Grande/Bravo Basin, especially those of us who are in the zone of Cd. Juárez-El Valle de Juárez?”
As the wheels of fortune spin faster and faster and new deals are hatched for greater and greater investment and growth in Cd. Juárez and the Paso del Norte, the stakes for communities, the environment and sustainable living will get only higher and higher.