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Mexico’s president to raise pay, boost economy along border so residents ‘will have no reason to cross into US’

U.S. Marines with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, walk along the California-Mexico border at the Andrade Point of Entry in Winterhaven, California, Nov.30, 2018. U.S. Northern Command is providing military support to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to secure the southwest border of the United States. (Spc. Ethan Valetski/U.S. Army)

The minimum wage for Mexican border residents will double and gasoline prices will be set on a par with those in the U.S. as part of an ambitious plan by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to stimulate the economy, make the region more competitive and stop his countrymen from heading north.

The moves come in a region facing the worst drug violence in years and a looming humanitarian crisis set off by the rising number of Central American migrants in this city and elsewhere along the border with the United States. Many are there awaiting the opportunity to request asylum in the U.S. but have been deterred by the immigration policies of President Donald Trump.

Lopez Obrador and his team say they see the border as a place of opportunity, to build so-called economic curtains, or nets, not walls.

“The free zone on the border is part of a national development plan,” Lopez Obrador said Saturday in a speech in Ciudad Juarez, one of several border cities that he is visiting over the weekend. “The central idea is to create nets for economic development from south to north so that Mexicans won’t have to emigrate anymore, so that they can be happy where they were born, where their families live, to enjoy their culture and customs.”

His words generated big applause from the crowd, even though immigration from Mexico is at historic lows, down from 1.6 million overall apprehensions in 2000 to less than 400,000 last year. Mexicans accounted for the majority of the apprehensions.

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Chihuahua state’s governor, Javier Corral Jurado, and some foreign investors cautiously applauded the announcement but said they want to see details. Corral said he wants a long-term commitment, not just a presidential decree.

Lopez Obrador responded that his commitment is for the six years of his presidential term and that the plan could be “perfected” along the way. He said he would return to the border in three months to evaluate progress.

Under the plan, Mexico is to cut income and corporate taxes to 20 percent from 30 percent in 43 municipalities in the six Mexico states along the 2,000-mile border with the U.S. Half of that border is along the Rio Grande and Texas.

Mexico, Lopez Obrador said, will also slash to 8 percent the value-added tax in the region and double the minimum wage for border residents to 176.2 pesos a day, the equivalent of $9.06.

Low Mexican salaries is one area, Lopez Obrador said, where he agrees with “President Trump. I agreed with him then and I still agree now” that wages must continue to rise to be more competitive with the U.S.

Economy Minister Graciela Marquez Colin said the goal is to stimulate wage and job growth via fiscal incentives and productivity gains.

“We want to attract more companies, create more jobs,” she said. “For those looking for the American dream, we want them to find it here on the border.”

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Sergio Silva Castañeda, a senior staff member in the Economy Ministry, put it this way:

“This is a spark plug to unleash the dynamism for the rest of the economy. We’re not favoring the border. We see the border as strategic for the rest of the country.”

While Lopez Obrador didn’t address Mexico’s security challenges, Silva said the plan is part of a long-term component “to generate enough good-paying jobs” for young Mexicans to counter the temptations of organized crime.

The year 2018 ended with the highest homicide rates in Juarez since the 2008-11 bloodiest period, according to Molly Molloy, a librarian at New Mexico State University who keeps a daily tally. She said there had been 1,247 homicides, up from 772, based on accounts in the Diario de Juarez newspaper.

Homicides in all of Mexico are expected to surpass 33,000 for 2018 once the final tally is in.

In his first press conference of 2019, Lopez Obrador called for young Mexicans to join a newly created national guard of more than 50,000 members by 2021. He promised that the guard would observe human rights and keep Mexico safe.

Outside the hall where Lopez Obrador spoke, people demonstrated for and against the national guard plan.

Leobardo Valencia, 46, supported the Lopez Obrador plan. Valencia called local police “cowards and corrupt. They’re part of the mafia,” he said.

Near him, Jorge Garcia, 31, took Lopez Obrador to task: “The national guard is a euphemism for the military, and we all know that when the military shows up, violence increases too. That’s not a coincidence. That’s a fact. Lopez Obrador knows this all too well, so well he campaigned against such a move.”

Security experts such as David Shirk, who has studied the issue closely for more than a decade, said he, too, was “skeptical of such efforts to centralize policing, because there is a great risk of also centralizing corruption and making police less focused on addressing local concerns, where most crime originates.”

“The bottom line is that we’re clearly not winning the war on drugs, and it is well past time to admit that,” said Shirk,  Director of Justice in Mexico, at the University of San Diego. “We need to radically rethink our approach, and Lopez Obrador is perhaps the best chance Mexico has had in a decade to start thinking outside the box.”

The issues on the minds of many border residents Saturday went beyond crime and jobs. Many, like Hugo Gaytan, 26, dread the winter weather and the rising number of Central Americans flocking to the border in hopes of crossing into the U.S. to apply for asylum.

Even without Lopez Obrador’s decree, Juarez already faces a labor shortage.

“If you want to work, you’ll find jobs in Juarez,” said Gaytan, who stood outside the hall, waiting to wave at Lopez Obrador. “We’re a city of immigrants, and we welcome our brothers and sisters from Central America.”

Many Central Americans, however, have said they have no intention of staying in Mexico to work, even though the Trump administration plans to require Central Americans to remain in Mexico while their asylum cases crawl through U.S. courts. That policy faces legal challenges, and questions about Mexico’s willingness to enforce a measure the Lopez Obrador team, by all accounts, has seemed reluctant to embrace from day one.

Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Reynosa and Tijuana may turn into giant waiting areas, something viewed with growing concern at migrant shelters on both sides of the border. In the Juarez stop, Lopez Obrador and his team didn’t address the pooling of Central Americans at the border.

Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House, which provides shelter for immigrants in El Paso, called the border situation a “humanitarian crisis” in the making that could force the creation of tent cities in Juarez.

Other experts and organizations, including the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have questioned why the Lopez Obrador administration would even consider cooperating with Trump’s plan to keep migrants in Mexico. The caucus has asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to explain how the policy would work.

“I don’t know if President Lopez Obrador fully understands the ramifications of this,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It seems he may think he got a deal, but the U.S. government didn’t give up anything, and if this goes through, the Mexican government has assumed an enormous and potentially dangerous responsibility for Central American asylum-seekers who will be stuck in Mexican territory.”

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© 2019 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.