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A Wild West Globalization Frontier

By Diane Lindquist
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drivers crossing borderTwo decades ago, when the North American Free Trade Agreement first became a hot topic, the media suddenly grew captivated with the U.S.-Mexico border region. Numerous stories appeared describing the 2,000-mile swath of binational territory as a separate country with a unique character and issues all its own.

The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, BusinessWeek and other outlets either created or considered creating bureaus to cover the region. Today, except for local outlets like The San Diego Union-Tribune, the media has largely forsaken the border, and the interest that does remain seems focused solely on migration and narco-trafficking.

Yet, the border continues to be a dynamic territory, a Wild West globalization frontier in which billion-dollar legal and illegal cross-border activities play out against a backdrop of U.S.-Mexican economic disparities.

The San Diego Union-Tribune's commitment to border coverage includes a Mexico City correspondent, two reporters in a Tijuana bureau and an immigration reporter. I've been responsible for U.S.-Mexico business news, and by focusing on the San Diego-Baja California area over the past 15 years, I've had virtually an endless selection of compelling issues to myself.

I've followed the growth of a $113 billion maquiladora manufacturing industry in which U.S., European and Asian companies churn out a wide array of goods, including cars, medical devices, aerospace products and the new generation of high-definition televisions for American consumers.

Food safety issues have dogged the region as more agricultural products eaten in the United States are grown south of the border. Hepatitis contamination outbreaks in green onions and in strawberries fed to American schoolchildren were tracked to Baja California fields.

Meanwhile over the last few years, major energy firms waged a fierce competition to be the first to bring liquefied natural gas to North America's west coast. As a result, LNG from Indonesia and Russia soon will arrive at a facility in Baja California, 50 miles south of San Diego, where it will be converted to gas to fuel power plants and generate electricity for Southern California far into the future.

A housing boom is underway on the 80-mile "Gold Coast" between Tijuana and Ensenada in which U.S. citizens are snatching up ocean-view vacation or retirement homes costing anywhere from $150,000 to over $1 million. More than $5 billion is expected to be invested in the next five years to build 22,000 housing units, including a complex being developed by Donald Trump.

Additional development includes Mexico's current preparations for an auction by which private global shipping and rail companies will develop a containerized cargo port and rail line at a remote bay 150 miles south of San Diego. The $9 billion project, being created to transfer Chinese goods into America's heartland, is expected to be as large as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach combined and will lead to the creation of a city on undeveloped land owned by a few impoverished communal farmers.

Reporting in Mexico, while captivating, can present challenges--not the least of which are different languages, cultures and a lack of openness among Mexican officials-despite a new federal transparency law. Still, many people speak English, and with a little guidance, it's much easier to obtain information than it once was.

With Mexico only a few miles from my office, I might be the only U.S.-based foreign correspondent at a U.S. newspaper. A fortunate holder of a SENTRI fast pass to avoid agonizing border waits, I typically roam across both Southern California and northern Baja California. But, while it's ideal to visit the region to savor the atmosphere in pursuit of a story, today's newsroom budgets don't always allow for it. Still, with the resources of the Web and a telephone, any reporter, from anywhere, can pursue stories about the border region.

Helpful sources to identify key contacts in Mexico can be found on the U.S. side of the six binational urban areas straddling the border. Many of the region's universities and colleges undertake cross-border research. U.S. Chambers of Commerce have Mexico offices that can provide links to the many business chambers, or camaras, in Mexico. Labor unions and NGOs have representatives on both sides of the border. Officials at the Embassy of Mexico in Washington, D.C., and in its consulates across the United States are also a good starting point as is the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and U.S. consulates in the country.

If contacting a cabinet agency in Mexico City, press offices are known as communicacion social and usually have someone available who speaks English. Good luck getting much beyond that office, however.

Mexican agencies all have websites, most with a limited English version. They are difficult to navigate as is the country's census bureau website INEGI, the repository of all government demographic and economic data for states, cities and the country as a whole.

While such challenges can be discouraging, they are not insurmountable and coverage is crucial. The border is a locale where the successes and failures of the delicate relationship between the United States and neighboring nations become apparent first, and border-area business activity notably impacts communities across America.

Editor's Note: Diane Lindquist will be leaving The San Diego Union-Tribune and plans to launch a Mexican business news Web site, to be called mexbiznews.com.

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