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Small Businesses Struggle in Border City of Tijuana

The city of Tijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border from California, is coping with a recession and drop off in tourism. Small loans from a U.S.-based international charity, typically several hundred dollars, are helping some residents weather the downturn.

The once-crowded streets of Tijuana are now mostly empty. Tourists have been kept away by news stories of crime and drug wars in this Mexican border city of more than 1.5 million people.

Tijuana was not seriously affected by the epidemic of swine flu that struck other parts of Mexico earlier this year, but television images from far-off Mexico City have also scared off tourists.

In Tijuana's poorest neighborhoods, known as colonias, people like Socorro Villavicencio struggle to earn a living. She is an indigenous Mixteca Indian from Southern Mexico, 39 years old, with seven children. She sells beaded necklaces and bracelets to tourists, buying her materials with loans from the Christian charity World Vision.

She says sales are down and fear of crime has kept away customers.

"How shall I say it? There are a lot of thieves," said Socorro Villavicencio. "That's why the police in the U.S., I see on the news, that they don't let the Americans cross the border because they say Mexico is dangerous."

Americans officials have urged caution, but no one is stopping tourists from coming here. The fact is, most do not want to.

In another dusty colonia, Maria del Refugio Salazar is part of a woman's cooperative, also set up with small loans from World Vision. Inside a small house in this hillside neighborhood, she and her neighbors are struggling to keep their business alive.

"Hemming pants, sewing zippers on garments and other sewing projects, but to date we have done everything little by little [step by step]," said Maria del Refugio Salazar. "But what has given us the most results and the biggest economic gains has been the work we have done with sewing. "

In another part of town, Tijuana auto parts dealer Jose Juan Ramirez Bribiesca is also under pressure in the economic downturn, relying on small loans, which keep him in business.

"Sales are down," said Jose Juan Ramirez Bribiesca. "There is some debt that comes from buying merchandise. We take out credit. Sales are down, and people take their time in paying."

There have also been cutbacks in manufacturing at local production plants known as maquiladoras, operated by international companies using Mexican workers. Many of those companies have shifted production to Asia.

It all adds up to hardship, says Noe Martinez Vidal, director of the border project for World Vision. He says this small colonia, and many others like it, have soaring unemployment.

"We can probably say that out of approximately 1,000 families, at least 30 percent of them have lost their jobs in the maquiladoras, service jobs, and different jobs because of the economic situation which has affected these families," said Noe Martinez Vidal.

For Tijuana's poor, life is hard, even in good times. Today, it is much harder.