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Once Active Border Town Feels Economic Slump - 2002-02-06


In recent years one of the most active places on the U.S.-Mexico border was the dry, flat desert are around the towns of Naco, Arizona and the town of the same name on the Mexican side of the border, in the state of Sonora. Both drug and immigrant smugglers favored the area and violent incidents were common. But all cross-border activity in the area has now slowed and the town's economy is in a slump.

Listening to music on local radio stations is about all there is to do for the residents of the Casa de Hospidaje on Naco's main street. This is one of the many lodgings here that used to be full of people who had come north to contact a pollero, an immigrant smuggler. Now, the smugglers hang around in front of the small hotel grumbling.

The men back off when they see the microphone. They say they do not want to talk about the situation. One man says he is upset by the extra security on the U.S. side of the border and he nods with disgust at the border crossing gate, two blocks down the street. The polleros have had to cut their going rate by more than half and they still find few customers.

The U.S. Border Patrol had already begun a build up in this zone before the events of September 11, but after the terrorist attacks, they went into their highest state of alert, making life tough for smugglers. In addition, the slowdown in the U.S. economy has reduced the number of jobs available to immigrants.

The recession and the reinforcement at the border have also had an impact on the overall business climate in this border town. Many of Naco's five-thousand people rely on cross-border commerce for their livelihood. Guadalupe Armenta owns the Farmacia Naco, a corner drug store that caters to regular customers from the U.S. side of the line. He says he saw a drop of about 72 percent in his business immediately after September 11, but that things have improved some in recent weeks. Still, he says business remains only about half of what it was before.

The pharmacy relies heavily on people from the United States who come across the border to buy medicines. One of the regular customers, Kathleen Kruger, comes from the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona every couple of weeks to buy medication for her 33-year-old son. "He needs medicines. He has hives and he needs some medicine. He has no money to go to a doctor or to pay for prescription drugs up there. It is cheaper here. It is the same quality of medicine," says Mrs. Kruger. "My husband gets Prozac and he has Sterling Insurance so they do not supplement medicines. They give us a discount in some places, but they do not pay for medicine. So, we can get like three months, but the three months of Prozac for him was $120 dollars for 90 pills and I can get 100 here for around $80 dollars."

In recent years, Naco has become known for a different kind of drug trade than that found at the local pharmacies. The desert around Naco has become a favored crossing zone for narcotics traffickers. Stepped up surveillance by U.S. authorities has reduced the flow somewhat, but Guadalupe Armenta says the general slowdown here in Naco has also had a positive effect on the crime rate. He says drug smuggling and immigrant smuggling went hand in hand here for a time and that the local police were overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming here to operate illegally. Now, he says there are no longer large numbers of migrants flooding the streets and everything is peaceful.

There are two assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, in Naco. They, along with local agriculture and cross-border commerce, provide employment to support the town's five-thousand-some people. Many residents say they are content to leave it at that and not have the sprawling growth that has led to congestion and high crime rates in other border communities. They say they prefer things quiet. For the moment, anyway, it seems they have their wish.

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