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Think Tank Helps Shape Relations : Mexico's Listening Post on the Border

January 01, 1986|GORDON SMITH

TIJUANA — As a boy growing up in the northern Mexico city of Chihuahua, Jorge Bustamante was enthralled with the United States, a country that produced a seemingly limitless number of great movies, cars and pop music hits.

But as he grew older, Bustamante was taught in school that the United States was something of a regional bully, a country that had invaded Mexico once and had threatened military intervention several other times. "It was like finding out that Santa Claus is really your parents," Bustamante said, recalling his disillusionment.

Years passed before Bustamante learned that, for many Mexicans, the United States is both a problem and an opportunity, a conflict that is made clear to him every day.

Bustamante is director of the Center for Border Studies of Northern Mexico, a kind of listening post for the Mexican government, a harvester of information on social and economic life on both sides of the border.

Researchers keep tabs on everything from the price of tortillas in Tijuana to the earnings of undocumented hospital workers in El Paso, Tex. They study inflation, population and air pollution. They also are documenting the massive migration of Mexican workers to the United States and the resulting tension it has created in both countries.

Nearly all the information is gathered to help shape--or at least clarify--relations with the United States. One of the main reasons the center was founded, said Bustamante, was "to identify the areas of potential conflict with the United States."

"Given the asymmetry that exists between Mexico and the United States--in terms of economic development, military power and everything else--we want to have the best information possible to negotiate with the United States," said Bustamante.

"For Mexicans, the United States is an opportunity, mainly an economic one. But it is a problem, too, in the sense that the relationship between the two countries is characterized by inequality. When we deal with an American, he is the one with all the money, the one dealing from a position of power."

Three institutions in San Diego also focus on border issues: the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and the Institute of the Americas, both located on the campus of UC San Diego, and San Diego State University's Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias.

In a way, the Center for Border Studies is a Mexican version of these American think tanks, but there is at least one important difference.

"We have more linkages between our activities and the decision-making process at the federal level" than the U.S. institutions do, Bustamante said. "A great proportion of all the information we produce here ends up on the desks of high-level bureaucrats in Mexico City."

Founded in 1982, the center has grown from a fledgling group of less than 10 researchers to a bustling, computerized institution with more than 60 employees and an annual budget of about $1 million. A new building in Tijuana's fashionable Zona del Rio serves as headquarters for the center, which has branch offices in the border cities of Mexicali, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo.

The center's success can be traced to Bustamante, 47, an amiable, gentle-spoken man with black hair and a bushy black mustache. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Notre Dame, and his encyclopedic knowledge of border trends and issues has led government officials in both Mexico City and Washington to seek his advice. He also writes a weekly column on border issues for Excelsior, a daily newspaper in Mexico City. And he travels--frequently.

A man who has devoted most of his life to studying migrants, Bustamante is almost constantly on the move, attending conferences or consulting with colleagues in Los Angeles, Tucson, Mexicali, Ciudad Juarez and South Bend, Ind. Because of frequent trips to Mexico City, he maintains a house there. But home is in Tijuana, with his wife and two children.

The Center for Border Studies was Bustamante's "idea, his baby," said Norris Clement, associate director of SDSU's Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias and a visiting professor at the Tijuana-based center. "He's an important political personage in Mexico--he's been a consultant to Cabinet ministers and the last three Mexican presidents--but he was also the only person in (the government framework) who wanted to . . . study the big (border) issues, like migration," Clement said.

The center's growth "is phenomenal for a research institution in just 3 1/2 years," Clement said. "Jorge is terribly energetic . . . but also very dedicated to a scientific method. One might say he's obsessed with doing the best possible job he can do."

The center has 43 researchers in fields ranging from sociology and political science to economics and engineering. Using surveys of various groups as their basic research tool, they have come up with some unexpected and occasionally controversial findings. Among them:

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