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Border becomes a barrier for 'sister cities'

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 2001



MATAMOROS, MEXICO

The papier-mâché sweet breads collect dust in large bins, the virgins of Guadalupe hang from stucco walls, and stacks of silver bracelets twinkle for no one in particular.

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These Mexican curios - once snatched up by American tourists and toted across the border in excessive quantities - sit idly in Raul Garcia's shop, a short walk from Brownsville, Texas. On what used to be a busy weekend here, the sales staff outweighs the customers.

"Instead of just one day off each week, they now get two," says Mr. Garcia, referring to his employees. "We had to do something. People have stopped coming."

Up and down the US-Mexican border, Americans' insecurity about travel and the clampdown at border crossings are sending bottom lines plummeting and buckling already fragile economies.

For years, the exchange of commerce and culture between cities on both sides of the border has given this region, often dubbed Mex-America, it own distinct identity. Indeed, southern Texas and southern Arizona share far more in common with Mexico than they do with Iowa or Maine.

But now that cross-border dependence is being severely disrupted as Americans struggle to find the right balance between security and normal living.

Sister cities - like Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico - are being hit particularly hard. They no longer function as the fluid unit they once did.

Tougher screening at checkpoints, new visa requirements, and understaffing at federal agencies are keeping thousands of people at home. That is having a profound effect on local business on both sides. At Garcia's shop, for instance, sales are down by 40 percent since the terrorist attacks. Across the Rio Grande in downtown Brownsville, where the majority of shoppers are from Matamoros, the situation is just as bleak.

But even more significant is what the tighter security means for free trade - especially at a time when the manufacturing sectors of both countries are struggling. Governors from Texas to California are so worried, they are asking the federal government for emergency aid.

"Mexico is the United States' No. 2 trading partner, and Texas's No. 1 trading partner. We've got to find a way to get commerce through that bridge," says Frank Feild, president of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Feild has been taking panicked phone calls from members since the attacks. Just this morning, he says, he got a call from a factory owner in Matamoros who says the truck waits at the border, which can now take several hours (or even longer in cities like Laredo), are severely damaging his business. On a typical day in Brownsville, 40,000 vehicles used to cross the bridges. Today that number is down by 40 percent.

The backup in traffic at the bridges has been good for some, however. Back in Matamoros, Marcelino Velázquez Cedillo sells steaming corn-on-the-cob to passengers creeping by in cars. He says he used to cross frequently into the US, but now plans his trips carefully and does it mostly on foot. "If you are carrying bags, they think you have a bomb, and it takes 45 minutes to check. It's easier to swim across," he says, grinning.

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