CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Signs of U.S. prosperity are everywhere in this sprawling border city: castoff Buicks and Fords piled high in the shadow of brand-new shopping malls filled with American goods from jeans by Guess? to Church's Fried Chicken.
Packing crates from the fast-multiplying maquiladoras, assembly plants run largely by U.S. companies, form the walls of shacks, while housing developments for low-level managers bloom in the desert nearby.
Old U.S. school buses rented by the maquiladoras haul workers from shantytowns to the broad new boulevards laid out in front of landscaped factory complexes. The buses are a perk since employers acknowledge that wages are too low for workers to pay their own transport. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, American managers in the maquiladoras zip home to El Paso along cross-border commuter lanes.
Starting Wages Stagnate for Years
It's hard to talk about good times on $35 a week, the average starting wage of most maquiladoras. But even if this doesn't match U.S. prosperity, there's no arguing that the U.S. economic boom is having its effect along the Mexican border.
Juarez is exploding with newly built shopping malls, factory complexes and cavernous Tex-Mex dance halls (75-cent drinks, no cover), and with some 40,000 people streaming into the city of 1.3 million each year.
Because of the U.S. economic boom, the number of maquiladora jobs in Mexico has more than doubled in the 1990s to 1.1 million, some 250,000 in Juarez alone. But the pay is subsistence, even by Mexican standards, and few workers benefit from their employers' profits.
Starting wages, $6 for a nine-hour day, haven't increased much in the 35 years since the first maquiladoras opened. In fact, they have declined in real terms from levels of 20 years ago.
The maquiladoras say comparing the success of American managers and the misery of Mexican workers is invalid.
"This is a different economy," says Michael Hissam, spokesman for Delphi Automotive Systems. Delphi is one of Mexico's largest private employers, with 70,000 workers at 53 plants, where, he says, "we're competitive in terms of wages."
U.S. prosperity has fueled the hand-me-down economy along Mexico's border, worsening problems of crime in the process. It has also had the unexpected consequence of creating new tension between rich and poor, government and governed, those who leave and those who stay.
After a Decade, $11 a Day
Of course, there are success stories among the workers. The maquiladoras were built in the 1970s with enough parking for managers only. Now they are creating parking lots for droves of Mexican supervisors who buy cars, usually secondhand from neighboring Texas.
Some lower management and skilled workers are also taking out loans on small houses. In an economy that has always had surplus labor, there is now a shortage of skilled workers. Welders, carpenters and electricians are in demand.
Paulo Moncado's bearded face lights up when he describes his move from a shantytown with no running water to a tidy 400-square-foot, four-room house in a development sponsored by his company.
"It's such a big change," he says. "We can have furniture now, and a tape recorder." And electricity. In the shantytown, illegal electrical hookups burned out appliances.
Moncado's house, just a block from General Motors Boulevard, came with the help of Delphi, his employer. Three years ago, Delphi started underwriting loans to reward low-level managers and loyal workers. After 10 years as a warehouse worker, Moncado now earns $11 a day.
For some, U.S. prosperity has literally rolled across the border. In addition to the junked cars that are scavenged for parts, the used-car business is moving up. The newfound wealth of one dealer, Ricardo Camarona, is apparent from his gold medallion and finely tooled leather boots and belt.
American used cars have always drifted across the border, but in the last few years they've been newer and in better condition, Camarona says. He stands beside a line of shiny 1994 and 1995 Grand Marquis at a street-side lot, for sale at $3,000 to $5,000 apiece.
"When I started in this business 10 years ago, I only had cars that were 15, 20 years old," he says. "I've definitely moved up."
The quality of other American hand-me-downs also has improved. Peruse the six square blocks of downtown Juarez where vendors sell castoffs, from appliances to stuffed animals.
David Lozano sits on the sidewalk in front of a pile of used stereos. "It's basically all considered garbage in the United States," he says. "We fix it up and sell it."
But many, perhaps most, are not faring better.
Through the border fence, 50,000 residents of Ciudad Juarez's Anapra shantytown can see new buildings of the University of Texas and $1-million homes in El Paso's Wildcat Hill.
Anapra has been spilling out from the city into the desert for 25 years. Despite endless promises from politicians, little has changed. The neighborhood still doesn't have a paved road or a sewer line.