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Trouble in Boomtown

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.

May 14, 2000|CHRIS KRAUL

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.

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