The News
México City, March 8, 2001

Mexican border czar Ruffo: Economics is key to solving region's woes - U.S. firms must contribute more

By Julie Weise
The News (Mexico City) Staff Reporter
(Emphasis added by

Thirty five years ago, northern border towns such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez were no more than American day-trip destinations or dusty backwaters. Today, they are the nation's greatest employment magnets, attracting hundreds of thousands of migrants from the rest of the country with their promise of comparatively well-paid jobs in foreign assembly plants, or maquiladoras -- and seemingly just as many woes.

This "miracle growth" has created dire water and housing shortages and exhausted the region's roads. And the very maquiladoras that create 250,000 of Mexico's 850,000 new jobs each year have come under fire for exploiting workers and polluting the environment.

Vicente Fox, who this week completes his first 100 days as president, created a new cabinet position, Commissioner for Northern Border Affairs, to manage the region's growth and work toward solving its problems.

He appointed Ernesto Ruffo Appel, a mild-mannered, San Diego-born, investment-minded former governor of Baja California, to the task. While illegal border-crossing falls under his purview, he said he viewed his job more as driving development than directing immigrant affairs.

For Ruffo, the challenge of border development, however complex, comes down to one word: economics.

The News interviewed Ruffo over breakfast on one of his visits to Mexico City.

Interspersing English words into his speech -- Ruffo was raised in Mexico but spent a high school year in San Diego -- and expounding on the merits of U.S. investment in border assembly plants, sounding very much like a member of his decidedly pro-business conservative National Action Party (PAN).

But he has no desire to take part in the Americanization of his homeland. In fact, he renounced his right to U.S. citizenship so he could participate fully in Mexican political life. While he is no fan of U.S. border policy -- his advice to would-be illegal immigrants: "if the border patrol finds you, try again" -- he sees the value of U.S. corporate investment in Mexico and the jobs it creates -- he just wants the Americans to pay more taxes to the Mexican treasury.

Ruffo came into office six years after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and his vision of the border as a "region" rather than a dividing line is consistent with the long-term vision of that pact.

For Ruffo, NAFTA was the beginning of the lucrative northern border experiment.

Since NAFTA's signing, he said, the economy of Mexico's six northernmost states has grown 8 percent a year, and their exports annually have grown 17 percent.

But more jobs have attracted more people and the population has grown 5 percent each year. "This means it will double in 13 years," said Ruffo. "We can only imagine the number of houses, the quantity of roads, pipes, water, energy we will need. Even before NAFTA we were behind on infrastructure; now the situation is even more acute."

Border maquiladoras, which were born in 1965 and have been virtually exempt from taxes, will have to begin paying their share if the infrastructure is to catch up to the rapid population growth their presence has created, said Ruffo, rebelling against the investment-at-any-cost stance of some previous Mexican politicans.

"The region can no longer continue with the plan of zero taxes," said the former businessman flatly. "There is no free lunch."

He said his commission would propose a plan to solicit corporate contributions toward improving housing conditions, while simultaneously increasing productivity at the corporations' assembly plants. Government and company each would contribute one third of the cost of a house for one of its workers, and for 10 years the worker would pay the other third as rent. If the worker stayed with the company 10 years, the house would be his.

In an industry with turnover as high as 80 percent a year, the goal is ambitious.

"In the maquiladoras, a worker arrives and if his supervisor makes a face at him, he goes to another plant," said Ruffo. "Work is instantly available. This turnover lowers productivity.

"When I ask the companies for more money, they get worried," said the commissioner of his plan. "But when I talk to them about productivity and combating turnover, they pay more attention."

Although human-rights groups on both sides of the border have attacked the working conditions in maquiladoras, Ruffo said the only problem that draws his immediate attention is the practice of forcing female applicants to prove they are not pregnant before signing on.

He said human rights monitoring was necessary, but thought economics would take care of most problems.

"I have seen interminable assembly lines, doing the same thing over and over," said Ruffo. "I don't think I would last very long there. The company itself should examine these cases to improve productivity."

First and foremost, said the PANista, "I see the maquiladoras as an opportunity.

Their primary effect is positive."

Many maquiladoras currently lack personnel due to low wages and difficult conditions. For some, the temptation of being just across the border from the world's wealthiest nation is too great a pull to resist. Each year, 300,000 Mexicans slip into the United States -- and Ruffo said ensuring their safety is a key part of his job.

"Of course, each country has the right to safeguard its border," he said, "but that does not mean the United States needs to be spending so much money patrolling the border."

The INS budget for 2001 is 4.3 billion dollars, triple what it was at the onset of the Clinton administration.

"Better to change the formula," said the commissioner, "and spend this money promoting economic development. That is more effective than Gatekeeper."

Operation Gatekeeper, a 1994 border-patrol initiative, caused a 67 percent increase in border apprehensions from its inception in 1994 to 2000. Critics, however, charge it did not stem migrant flows but simply diverted them to more dangerous crossings, causing 1,437 migrant deaths during the same period. Experts estimate that 70 percent to 80 percent of migrants elude the patrols, beat the weather and arrive in the United States alive.

Ruffo said he would mount a public relations campaign in bus stations and airports to warn migrants of the dangers of illegal border-crossing -- but with an eye toward improving migrants' crossing practices rather than dissuading them altogether.

"We must tell them that in January, February and March, if you pass through the mountains it is very cold," he said. "In June, July and August it is really hot. So the time to cross is ..." the official trailed off with a smile.

"If they find you, do not resist," he continued in an advice-giving tone. "The game is over -- for this round. Tomorrow begins another."

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