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Governors confer on US, Mexico border. They rally around joint economic development, but sidestep drugs

The governors of the 10 US and Mexican states that abut their countries' 1,951-mile border have vowed to step up support for commerce that twins American capital and low-cost Mexican labor. Yet while cooperation on economic development is the governors' rallying call, the United States executives are frustrated over their Mexican counterparts' seeming unwillingness to discuss the border's most sensitive issue: drug trafficking.

The 10 border governors met here for two days last week, the first such meeting since 1984.

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New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers said the state chiefs wanted to stress ``positive'' issues as they work to reestablish the cross-border talks, which have taken place six times since 1963. California Gov. George Deukmejian said the governors wanted to start out with issues, such as economic development, where they could do ``the most short-term good.''

Governor Carruthers added pointedly, however, that the absence of drugs from the agenda was ``not at all the preference of the four governors on the American side.''

The US governors said they hoped the drug issue would make the agenda of next year's meeting, set for Saltillo, in the Mexican state of Coahuila.

That may not happen, however. A working list of 1988 agenda items, approved by the governors, includes industrial development, environmental issues, tourism, trade, transportation, education, and agriculture - but not drugs.

On the economic front, the governors voiced their support for Mexico's maquiladora program, which allows foreign companies to build assembly plants employing some of the world's cheapest labor.

The governors advocated stepped-up development of infrastructure, particularly in Mexico, to accommodate the growing number of US plants there. More and smoother-operating border crossings to facilitate product shipment were also endorsed, and the possibility of joint industrial parks, which could include their own border checkpoints, was suggested.

As the dollar falls in value against Asian currencies and US manufacturers continue to experience the disadvantages of maintaining operations as far away as Asia, Mexico becomes increasingly attractive.

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Maquiladoras, or simply ``maquilas,'' build and assemble everything from toys to cassette tapes, from car parts to electronics products.

While the plants now employ more than 300,000 Mexicans and have led to economic development on the US side of the border, an expert with the US Department of Commerce warned the governors that dark clouds are forming over the maquila program.

In particular, said Alex Good, director of the Commerce Department's Foreign Commerce Service, steps should be taken to ensure the American public that the program is beneficial to the United States.

Most of the nearly 1,100 maquilas are American-owned. But Mr. Good noted that the Japanese are showing interest in the maquila concept.

``If it is perceived that the Japanese are using the maquilas to enter US markets, that could erode [American] support for the maquiladora program,'' he said.

Also, he said, greater Mexican receptivity to American maquila products could help the program. Good noted that only about 5 percent of the maquilas' finished products are sold to Mexico.

He added that an American perception that the maquiladora program costs the US jobs has led to legislation that if passed would put a damper on US participation in the program.

Expecting a national report later this month to confirm his opinion that maquilas have actually encouraged a ``repatriation of US jobs,'' particularly from Asia, Good encouraged the governors to take steps to educate the public on the program's benefits - a recommendation they accepted.

Mexican officials said they favor something ``a little more ambitious'' for the maquila program: a stronger, more interdependent effort by both countries to use cooperative industrial development to ``confront together the challenge we face together from the Asian market,'' as Eloy Cantu, a gubernatorial adviser from Nuevo Le'on, said.

On the drug issue, the US governors said Mexican sensitivity has meant that private talks between individual governors have been more effective than public forums for raising the subject. Texas Gov. Bill Clements said he had ``productive'' private talks that included the drug issue with the governors of each of the four Mexican states bordering Texas and that such meetings would continue.

Governor Clements said the issue in Mexico falls almost exclusively under federal jurisdiction, and thus leaves little room for the governors to operate.

But Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham said that was beginning to change.

Saying that information on his state's antidrug program got ``excellent reception'' from Sonora state officials, Governor Mecham added, ``Discussing drugs is no longer taboo as it once was with Mexican governors. It's coming out on the table, but you don't do it all at once.''

The Mexican governors at the meeting were Eliseo Mendoza Berrueto (Coahuila), Jorge Trevino Mart'inez (Nuevo Le'on), Rodolfo Felix Valdes (Sonora), Fernando Baeza Melendez (Chihuahua), Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera (Baja California), and Americo Villareal Guerra (Tamaulipas).

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