Posted by Bill on Mayo 15, 2000
Over this past weekend, the L.A. Times ran a large feature article on the ups and downs of living in this popular Baja Norte community. This is a “must read” for anyone thinking of relocating to the area. (The article follows this thread.)
Posted by Braulio in Mexicali on Mayo 20, 2000
Thanks for the post. We have a similar situation here in Mexicali with thousands of workers from the poorest southern states arriving to work in the maquiladora industry. Of course here we don’t have the (blessing or curse) of the tourism business. As bad as things seem they’re still better than the parts of Mexico where the workers and their families come from. We might not be quite as hard pressed as Rosarito but our infrastructure has certainly suffered in the past 3-4 years. And it will be interesting to see what shakes out in Juarez, Tijuana, and Mexicali in the next 20 years or so. By that time I’ll hopefully have been sipping margaritas in Tepic for about 15 years. Thanks again –
Posted by TJ-new on Mayo 15, 2000
Thank you for the informative article. I think the LA times is exaggerating a little. TJ does not seem as bad as he says it is.
The Promise of Work in Baja Has Resulted in More Jobs
–and Greater Poverty, Pollution and Disease.
So Say a Prayer for the Mayor of Rosarito Beach as He Struggles to Invent a City.
The mayor of Rosarito Beach is overwhelmed. He has a population explosion on his hands that has obliterated the city’s flimsy infrastructure and meager financial resources. Thousands of his constituents live in shantytowns with no sewage or paved streets in the hills east of Mexico’s touristy Baja California beach area. The town is running out of water and schools are so overcrowded that hundreds of youths are left to roam the streets, a law-and-order time bomb.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” says Silvano Abarca Macklis, Rosarito’s first elected mayor. He’s joking. But he’s not.
The arrival of several maquiladoras–foreign-owned factories–in the last few years has prompted thousands of impoverished Mexicans, desperate for work, to move from the south to Rosarito, now the country’s second-fastest growing city after Cancun. City fathers are deeply split over the merits of the maquiladoras, which Abarca has embraced as the key to a more diverse economy. Critics who extol the virtues of a tourism-based economy–despite a recent and dramatic drop in visitors–say Rosarito couldn’t be less prepared for the runaway growth spawned by the factories.
Abarca understands the implications of Rosarito’s–and Baja’s–staggering growth. He knows he can’t expect much from the government, knows he can beg only so much from the foreign owners of the maquiladoras. He knows that Rosarito’s problems are in many ways accidents of geography and booming global trade.
But the mayor still has this crazy notion that he can make a difference. So Silvano Abarca Macklis struggles to shore up his town against the growth onslaught, fighting for bits and pieces of tax money to stem the flow of the filth, the squalor and the sadness, as he tries to prevent an all-out social and ecological nightmare that could have wide-ranging implications, including for those who live across the border.
As the region stretching from Santa Barbara to Ensenada becomes increasingly linked through trade and immigration, the poverty, pollution, crime and disease of Baja are increasingly becoming Southern California issues. If Abarca can achieve some success in Rosarito Beach, he might provide some hope, even some sort of model for government in Northern Baja. If he fails, God help him and his constituents, and God help Southern California.
Baja’s growth machine didn’t start pumping overnight. It began in the late 1980s, when Americans began their own migration south to grab a piece of the laid-back, low-cost Baja lifestyle, taking advantage of newly liberalized real estate ownership laws. The 70-mile coastline from Tijuana to Ensenada since has been blanketed with gringo-oriented houses, condos and trailer parks, mostly within walking distance of the beach. About 10,000 Americans own property in the Rosarito area alone.
Population growth in Baja took an exponential turn in the mid-’90s with the maquiladoras that have fed an incredible industrial boom along Mexico’s border region since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Companies from around the world, but mainly the United States, have come to Mexico to take advantage of low-cost labor and the favorable tariff treatments on goods they ship back across the border.
Up to 100,000 poor Mexicans a year have been arriving in Northern Baja since 1995. Some use the region as a trampol 3/8n, or springboard, from which to migrate illegally to the U.S. But most are lured by the “help wanted” signs at the factories, where they can earn an average of $1 an hour–a pittance in the United States but more than welcome for people from the impoverished Oaxaca, Zacatecas and Michoacan states, who couldn’t find work after the 1994 peso devaluation that cost more than a million workers their jobs.
Rosarito is host to five maquiladoras. The largest are owned by Sharp Electronics, the Japanese electronics firm that has been manufacturing televisions and vacuum cleaners here since 1998, and KOJO Industries, a Huntington Beach-based textiles firm that opened last year to make the drapes and bedspreads for all Marriott hotels worldwide. Combined, the two plants will employ about 3,000 workers by the end of next year.
Booming factories and, until recently, a healthy tourism industry have pushed Rosarito’s annual growth rate to 10.4%. The city’s population is now 110,000, nearly double that of 1995. Most of the new arrivals end up living in the colonias, the only neighborhoods they can afford, whose developers didn’t bother to go through city planning channels or pay the fees and taxes for the infrastructure that residents someday would demand.
In Rosarito, the colonias have crept up the hillsides east of the coastal strip and the Tijuana-Ensenada Scenic Toll Road. Three quarters of the city’s population now lives there in varying degrees of squalor. Seventy percent have no paved streets or sewage; 25% have no water service at all. The lack of sewage puts the entire population at risk. Untreated human waste creates fecal dust, which can lead to a high incidence of typhoid and other intestinal ailments. What’s more, residents run a greater-than-average risk of contracting tuberculosis.
The educational system in Rosarito, ostensibly funded by the state but which the city must help support, is short at least a half-dozen schools. City council member Enrique Esquivel says that in one of his neighborhoods, Plan Libertador, 750 children ages 12 and older have been turned away from middle school because there is no room. “That creates a potential for delinquency and it means that the youth are not preparing to earn a better salary than the minimum,” Esquivel says. “Those sorts of people can’t support their families, can’t give the city the skilled labor it needs.”
Abarca’s agenda would be laughably full even if he weren’t wrestling with out-of-control growth. He still has a city to invent. Five years after its incorporation in 1995, when it broke away from Tijuana, Rosarito still lacks the institutions that define a municipality. The makeshift city hall is spread out in buildings over six blocks. There is no city dump, so Rosarito has to pay Tijuana $350,000 a year to handle its trash, twice what it would cost the town to handle the service itself. There is no modern jail and the police force has not grown in five years, nor has its fleet of patrol cars.
Abarca runs his city on what U.S. city administrators would consider a shoestring: about $10 million a year. Three million of that comes in grants from the state and federal governments, grants that vary each year. He also can raise money from property taxes and liquor and taxi licenses (there is no mass transit in Rosarito). Compare that to Chula Vista, just across the border, which at 172,000 has about 50% more people than Rosarito but eight times its budget.
Southern California is feeling the consequences of this growth in greater traffic, pollution and health risks, and the future promises more of the same. Border trade should triple to $58 billion annually by 2020. UC San Diego political scientist Steve Erie envisions the Tecate-Tijuana-Rosarito region as a near-seamless metropolis of 3.6 million by then, triple today’s count. Experts fear basic public amenities will continue to lag.
“You can’t pile up poverty across a border that’s as permeable as this one and not expect the problems to come north,” says Charles Nathanson, executive director of San Diego Dialogue, a regional public-policy research center at UC San Diego. Based on past experience, there’s no reason to think that governments on either side of the border will make the necessary investments in housing, airports, railroads and freeways needed to support the immense tide of trade and population growth expected to wash over the region. The San Diego/Tijuana region spent less than $400 million on trade infrastructure projects from 1995 to 2000, Erie says, compared with the $1.5 billion that the roughly comparable Seattle/Tacoma region invested and the $3.2 billion that the San Francisco Bay Area spent.
A high incidence of tuberculosis is typical of the colonias, and poor health conditions in Baja are traveling north. The rate of such “hygiene-related” diseases as hepatitis, attributed to cross-border movement, is higher in San Diego and other border towns than in other parts of the nation, says Rick Gersberg, professor of environmental health at San Diego State University.
The Tia Juana River originates in Baja and flows through Tijuana but empties into the Pacific on the U.S. side of the border. For decades, raw sewage from Tijuana has intermittently closed San Diego County beaches as far north as the world-famous Hotel Del Coronado, about 15 miles away. Although a huge new treatment plant built by the International Boundary and Water Commission became fully operational last year, untreated Tijuana sewage flows into the United States whenever it rains.
Californians also should be concerned that Northern Baja California’s water supply will max out in 2005, meaning either that growth will have to be cut–not a likely scenario–or that water will have to be rationed, unless new supplies can be found. Among the ideas: a new binational aqueduct from the Colorado River, co-financed by water-short San Diego County; desalination plants; a series of wells.
Although border planning on the California side has been a fragmented affair at best, some see signs of improvement, such as the Regional Infrastructure and Transportation Agency, a proposed planning agency in San Diego County that Mexican officials would be asked to join.
Others think more drastic measures by the United States are needed as Mexico falls further behind in infrastructure investment. A recent study of global public works by the International Institute for Management Development found Mexico trailing every major Latin American economy and ranking 39th in the world, down from 26th just four years ago.
Nathanson of San Diego Dialogue thinks a “Marshall Plan” involving the U.S., Mexican and other foreign governments is the only way to devise financing methods for housing, environmental safeguards and open space protection that Baja and other border zones so badly lack.
“Otherwise,” says Nathanson, “the benefits of economic investment in the region will remain very narrow and the problems of poverty, such as crime and disease, will spill northward over the borders.”
Silvano Abarca Macklis is a dapper, engaging man who likes a joke, even at his own expense. Driving around Rosarito during one of his 14-hour work days, he says with a wry smile that winning the election was more like pulling the winning ticket in a “lotto de locos,” a raffle for the insane.
He admits to being somewhat dazed at times by the enormity of his job, that beating three opponents two years ago in Rosarito’s first-ever mayoral election, in which he garnered half of the 12,000 votes cast, was the easy part. Before he took office, the population explosion was a statistic. Now he lives it every day as mobs of constituents enter his office with their hands out, seeking jobs, breaks on taxes, cash for medical bills and housing repairs.
Abarca, who is 43, is asked why anyone would want his job. His response is worded carefully: He enjoys the challenges and dealing with people, he says. He’s determined to meet his goals, which include more streets, a traditional city hall and police station–before his term is over. He wants Rosarito Beach to be a more livable town.
He says he looks forward to returning to his law practice once his term is up in 2001, welcome news for his wife Lillian, a state relief agency worker, daughter Belen, a 23-year-old university student, and 8-year-old son Said. They don’t see much of him.
Abarca steers his Chevy Suburban down the city’s main drag, Avenida Benito Juarez, a four-lane byway clogged with traffic. Just a decade ago, it seemed like a back-country road. Now the scene is decidedly urban: an unending string of bars, strip malls, hotels and condo towers.
He turns the Suburban east through the dense coastal development, heads over the toll road overpass and drives up a hill where the pavement ends and Rosarito’s hardscrabble Colonia Constitucion shantytown begins. He climbs the hilly, unpaved roads lined with jerry-built houses, often made of plywood scraps. The colonias are found all over Latin America (in Brazil they are called favelas), a characteristic of families’ inability to afford–and governments’ inability to plan and pay for–enough decent housing.
Abarca’s mood is grim as he negotiates the rutted streets. He knows that when it rains, the roads become impassable bogs of mud and that raw sewage often courses down them from overflowing cisterns and outhouses. He parks in front of Charolais Groceries, a neighborhood meeting ground, and begins working the crowd, chatting up the adults, buying candy and bread for the kids. In the space of 15 minutes, he has met a dozen new residents from every corner of Mexico.
Several work in the maquiladoras, others in tourism or construction. All of them say that Rosarito is a far better place than their hometowns.
Lucy Esquivel, 20, explains that her husband, a gas station attendant, earns twice what he made in central Mexico, their previous home. Carlos Bernal, originally from central Mexico, came from Tijuana, where crime, drug trafficking and the gangs who lord over the colonias drove him away.
“It’s 100% better here. There isn’t the gunfire and chaos of Tijuana,” says Bernal, who holds down jobs as a street vendor and construction worker.
Some border experts wonder whether U.S. and other foreign businesses responsible for much of the overload shouldn’t take on more responsibility for alleviating it. Increasingly, state and local leaders such as Abarca go directly to the maquiladoras, hats in hand, to ask for funds for special projects, to pay for this or that street paving or fire station.
“There is no other remedy. We have insufficient resources. That’s why a policy has developed looking to the private sector to intervene, because the infrastructure requires it,” says Baja Gov. Alejandro Gonzalez Alcocer.
After his visit in front of Charolais Groceries, Abarca drives to Sharp Electronics’ ultramodern factory nearby to pay a call on plant director Shigeaki Nishikawa. He reminds Nishikawa of an upcoming Red Cross fund-raiser and of how much its clinic is in need of contributions. Nishikawa tells the mayor to count him in. The mayor has come with other requests, such as $30,000 for paving and lighting in the plant’s vicinity, which the Japanese manager fulfilled. Abarca says he is on similarly good terms with Joe Robertson, CEO of KOJO Industries, who has promised about $400,000 for a day-care center for 150 children. It’s a start.
Once upon a time, tourism was king in Rosarito, but the industry has been whipsawed in recent years. And that’s why Abarca pushes industry. Rosarito’s tourist trade received an enormous boost in 1996 when Fox Studios erected a permanent film production facility just south of town to shoot much of the blockbuster movie “Titanic.” Fox is now building an adjoining theme park called “Foxploration,” to open later this year, to leverage interest in the highest-grossing movie of all time. Rosarito is hoping it will attract a half-million visitors annually.
Visitors, of course, can be a mixed blessing. The town’s reputation as a quiet family destination has been challenged in the last decade by waves of partying high school and college students from Southern California, attracted by the 18-and-over drinking age at popular bars such as Senor Frog’s and Papas & Beer.
Up to 15,000 party animals descend on Rosarito on weekends, and 30,000 for big holidays such as July 4, police Chief Ignacio Garcia Dworak says. Last year, Playboy magazine called Rosarito the “Superhot Spot” for U.S. college kids on spring break.
The public drunkenness and underage boozing can get out of hand, and some weekends the city’s three-cell jail–the one Abarca is trying to replace with a larger, more modern facility– holds as many as 200 young people. They typically spend a few hours sobering up, pay a $20 fine and go free. “It looks like a kindergarten sometimes,” Garcia says.
Nonetheless, tourism was showing steady growth until a succession of ugly incidents and bad news reversed the trend.
In September 1998, 18 people were slain execution-style near Ensenada as part of a drug feud. Last August, three retirees from the U.S. were killed in Rosarito in two separate robbery attempts. Also in August, Donald Kraft of San Diego County, who had been in a car accident north of Ensenada, died after Mexican authorities demanded that his family post bail before they would let him go home to seek medical care. In November, a U.S. Marine spent two weeks in a Tijuana jail after driving across the border with two disassembled weapons in his truck. Then the Tijuana police chief was assassinated this spring.
All the incidents received massive U.S. media coverage–and cooled many Americans’ enthusiasm for driving south. So did the Mexican government’s plan to make each foreign motorist crossing the border pay a vehicle deposit of up to $800, a plan that was put in force briefly in December, then quickly canceled.
Hugo Torres Chabert, owner of the fabled Rosarito Beach Hotel, an institution since 1925, is confident that tourism will rebound once the memories of the headlines recede and the town’s two new tourist draws, a weekend gambling cruise from San Diego and the Fox Studios’ new theme park, take hold. (The gambling cruise, which had its maiden voyage April 15, docks at an 1,800-foot pier that Torres built in front of his hotel. He plans a 500-slip marina and breakwater just south of it.)
Torres also is confident that factories and tourists don’t mix and is opposed to any more maquiladoras in Rosarito. “To promote maquiladoras is to bring poverty from south to north,” says Torres, 63, whose family has owned the hotel since 1929 and who is grooming his two daughters, Laura and Rosy, to assume the reins once he steps down.
“Only 50% of our people are paying taxes, but 100% want the city services,” says Torres, who led the push for Rosarito’s independence, an effort that began in 1982 when the population was less than 30,000.
What might the city be like in 2020, when its population is expected to reach 325,000?
Abarca has 19 months left in office. he will consider his term a success if he leaves with 50% of the streets paved (when he started, 20% were paved) and if work on a sewage system, to be financed with a low-interest loan from the Japanese government, has begun.
To pay for those streets, Abarca has become an imaginative and ruthless tax collector. He has added thousands of deadbeats to the tax rolls and shaken down colonia owners to pay up past due taxes and fees. He has reassessed the federal taxes paid by wealthy property owners and businesses along the coastline, a big pot of cash of which the city gets to keep 80%.
The city’s budget in 1998, when Abarca came into office, was $6 million; it is now $10 million, an increase officials are attributing to the mayor’s vigorous and aggressive tax collection efforts. Abarca expects to privatize the city’s trash collection soon, saving $200,000. By the end of this year, the city will have its first general plan, laying down what can be built and where, imposing building standards where few now exist.
Disappointments? An estimated 17,000 residents still aren’t paying taxes who Abarca thinks should be. The school shortage continues to frustrate him, but he says he is powerless to do anything about it –the capital costs of building classrooms, he says, are the state’s responsibility.
What he likes best is talking to constituents, up to 50 a day during days that often stretch into late evenings.
All come to him with problems, some of which he can fix, such as expediting residency certificates, even dispensing a little cash for home repairs or medical bills. Other problems will take time, and he tells residents to be patient.
“They want water, lights and streets. It’s a problem for the city, not them,” Abarca says with a smile.
Back in his cramped office, between visits, Abarca takes a deep breath. This business of delivering satisfactory service is “very complicated. We just brought light to a neighborhood of 250 homes. Now they all want streets, and there is no money.”
It’s a start. But it’s just a start.