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US plants south of border offer help to Mexico's economic woes

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Industrial growth south of the US-Mexico border is boosting the economies of both nations. Today about 200,000 Mexicans are employed in 700 plants huddled mostly along the border. The plants, involved in electronics, clothing, furniture, toys, and vehicle assembly, are part of a Mexican program that allows 100 percent foreign ownership of plants involving assembly of foreign-produced parts for foreign consumption.

According to Alejandro Horcasitas, marketing manager for a large industrial-park developer in Cuidad Ju'arez, the growing number of assembly plants -- called ``maquiladoras,'' or simply ``maquilas'' in Mexico -- could employ 1 million Mexicans by the turn of the century. Today, in large part because of the maquiladoras, the per capita income in Mexico's border regions rivals that of Mexico City.

Industrialization of the Mexican border region also has deep implications for the American side, which stands to profit from a growing employed population and a general increase in economic activity. Some border observers even believe the industrialization, especially if expanded generally into the Mexican interior, could help stem the flow of illegal aliens into the United States.

The main incentive for expansion of the plants is the availability of cheap labor. The minimum hourly wage in the plants, including fringe benefits, is about $1.10, making Mexico cheaper than the Asian countries usually associated with such assembly.

``Ciudad Ju'arez has taken the place of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the others as the assembly capital of the world,'' says Oscar J. Martinez, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Ciudad Ju'arez is the center of assembly activity, employing more than one-third of the maquiladora work force. Other important centers include Tijuana, Matamoros, Reynosa, Nogales, and Mexicali.

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