Crime has threatened to ruin Ciudad Juárez's popularity as a hub for international export manufacturing plants for a decade.
But Juárez has survived and is preparing for a new influx of investors.
With El Paso, its business partner across the Río Grande in neighboring Texas, the city of 1.3 million forms one of the most successful cross-border industrial corridors in the world.
The statistics on villainy, however, are grim: Hundreds of murders of women, several thousand men and women executed in drug-related gang warfare, numerous cases of kidnapping and extortion.
Like feral rats, criminals by and large operate with impunity, whether because of police incompetence, corruption or fear, most crimes are unsolved.
In early August the federal government, having already sent in the army, threatened to withdraw law enforcement funding for Juárez unless the city adequately trained its police force. It subsequently relented.
In the 46 years since the Antonio J. Bermudez Industrial Park in Juárez housed the country's first maquiladora, the number of such plants in the city has grown to about 300. Plastics processors number about 30, according to the Juárez Office of Economic Development.
However, Enrique Miramontes with manufacturers' rep Labelle Industrial Sales Inc. of El Paso, said that when large corporations with in-house injection, extrusion and blow molding operations, such as Electrolux, Honeywell, Flextronics, Nypro and Automotive Lighting are included, the number is closer to 75.
“There are fewer than 10 customs shops in Juárez, [but] I don't believe anybody has [accurate] data relating to plastics,” said Miramontes, who is Labelle's plastic products manager for Mexico and Central America.
The Juárez Economic Development Office reported that the value of products made from rubber and plastics in Juárez and adjacent towns in the state of Chihuahua in 2010 was $106.6 million, up from $104.1 million the year before. In the first five months of 2011, rubber and plastics processors' sales reached $45.3 million, only slightly down from the year-ago period.
In 2008, Juárez maquiladoras employed 250,000, but the global downturn led to 80,000 being laid off in 2009. Hiring began again in 2010 and up to 30,000 have been re-employed, said Alan Russell, president and CEO of the Tecma Group of Cos. in El Paso.
Tecma helps foreign firms establish themselves in Mexico. With a 40-plus client list on its website, the firm finds factory space, gets permits, imports and installs equipment, hires workers, and so on. It is currently making proposals to three potential clients a week, he said.
The U.S. Commercial Service, along with its Border Trade Initiative in El Paso, also has been busy, said El Paso's CS director, Robert Queen. At a June event sponsored by CS and the state of New Mexico, 40 maquiladora representatives and 600 U.S. businesspeople showed up, he said.
He said the U.S. provides 47 percent, or $41 billion worth, of all inputs to Mexico's 2,800 maquiladoras, 60 percent of which are on the border. Asian companies are the second-largest providers.
But Tecma's Russell believes, “For the first time in modern history, Mexico can be a head-to-head competitor with China.”
Minimum wage and operating costs in China have risen by as much as 30 percent this year alone, he noted. And, the global recession, which saw banks pull lines of credit from manufacturers, is slowly ending, Russell said.
That fact has many firms that had moved manufacturing to China 10 years ago looking elsewhere, including at Juárez, said Queen, who declined to comment about any security issues.
But Russell in El Paso said: “We've not had any type of assault on plants or personnel. Our shipments have not been obstructed or blocked. We have not had our vehicles hijacked.”
Crime, he added, is declining in Juárez — a claim also made by Chihuahua state governor César Horacio Duarte Jáquez.
Plastic Molding Technology Inc. CEO Charles Sholtis said his firm moved to El Paso from Bridgeport, Conn., 10 years ago in search of business opportunities presented by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The move has paid off. With just under 100 employees and 58 injection presses, PMT has doubled sales to about $14 million, from two years ago, Sholtis said. High-tolerance parts for the automotive and household electronics sectors account for about 75 percent of the firm's business.
With NAFTA has come such things as streamlined points of entry, Sholtis said, such as multiple crossing points and a beltway around Juárez.
U.S. merchandise exports to Mexico — the U.S.' third-largest trading partner — were $163 billion in 2010, up 27 percent over the year before, said Queen. And El Paso is the fourth-largest exporting city in the U.S., with more than 75 percent of its exports going to Mexico, he pointed out.
“It's not a boom,” Russell said about the cross-border business. “We're growing at a nice pace. We're back to where we were in 2008” — criminal activity notwithstanding.