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El Paso Weathers Storm as Flu Panic Grips Mexico

It is often said of U.S. cities bordering Mexico that if one city gets a cold, the other sneezes, because their economies are so closely linked. Mexico has now caught something much worse than a cold, with hundreds of people confirmed with the new H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as swine flu. This comes on top of a worldwide recession and a wave of drug-related violence that has marred Mexico's image as a destination for travel. But, neither the flu nor other problems south of the border have had much impact on the other side.

Across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, the Mexican city of Juarez is in turmoil as government officials close down bars and nightclubs, suspend sports activities and public gatherings and warn people to take precautions against the flu. Juarez has been in a slump for months, partly because of the recession that has forced cutbacks at the 375 assembly plants operated by U.S., Asian and European corporations, and partly because of the drug gang violence that prompted Mexican President Felipe Calderon to send 5,000 additional soldiers to Juarez several weeks ago.

Close to 30,000 factory workers are without jobs in Juarez and many more people have been left idle by the flu-related shutdowns of businesses and schools. El Paso has served as a temporary escape for many people from Juarez. Alma Saldana walked over the bridge with her son to shop in the Texas city.

She says she comes here because prices are lower and she can find better quality products. But she says many of her friends and neighbors are not crossing the bridges that link the two cities because they cannot afford to shop.

Many downtown El Paso stores are owned and operated by Korean immigrants like Hui Suk Hilton, who says she has few customers each day.

"Maybe 10 or 20."

Flakus: "That's all?"

"That's all."

Flakus: "How do you stay in business?"

"Well, what am I supposed to do, close and go somewhere? I have been here a long time and I have my merchandise here. Right now I do not have any choice but to stay here."

She and other merchants in the downtown area near the border have lost around 60 percent of their normal business in the past several months, but the rest of El Paso has suffered far less.

Part of what keeps El Paso afloat economically is the presence of Fort Bliss, the U.S. Army base that employs more than 6,000 local residents and has plans for major expansion.

Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Dayoub says the military base provides the city with a crucial economic foundation. "Currently, today, the estimated annual impact to our economy from Fort Bliss is somewhere between two and a half and three billion (dollars), today. By 2012 or 2013, that will be five and a half billion dollars, annually," he said.

But Dayoub says most business in El Paso is related directly or indirectly the border, including the companies with offices in El Paso that administer assembly plants on the other side of the river. But what he considers exaggerated reports about the flu situation in Mexico have caused some disruptions to that sector as well. "We have American companies telling their employees not to travel to El Paso to go to work in Juarez for the time being, until this thing subsides, thinking that it is really at epidemic proportions, and it really is not," he said.

Dayoub notes that there has yet to be a single confirmed case of the H1N1 influenza-A in Juarez or El Paso. Health officials caution, however, that the virus could easily spread to the border and that precautions taken, like the closing of bars and nightclubs, may help keep the illness from infecting more than a few people.

Dayoub says residents of Juarez have suffered a lot in the past year from the recession as well as the drug violence that claimed hundreds of lives. He hopes whatever impact the flu has will be relatively brief and benign so that commerce between the two border cities will not be disrupted.