Pubdate: Fri, 20 Jun 2008
Source: USA Today (US)
Page: 10A
Copyright: 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
Bookmark: (Mexico)


Falling U.S. Home Prices Beckon Middle Class Seeking 'Tranquility'

MEXICO CITY - In February, Salvador Urbina decided he was tired of the
shootouts, the kidnappings and the military patrols in the Mexican
border city of Ciudad Juarez.

So he put his house up for sale, packed up his car, and moved his wife
and children across the border to El Paso, joining a growing stream of
professionals who are relocating to the USA to get away from Mexico's
drug wars.

"I didn't want to leave," said Urbina, a lawyer. "But there's a very
deep psychosis developing in Juarez. Criminals are taking advantage of
the situation there. Every day I worried about the safety of my wife
and family."

In U.S. cities along the border, middle-class Mexicans are buying
homes or renting apartments and even moving their businesses across
the border, say real estate agents, chambers of commerce and city
officials. Many are getting investor visas for a long-term stay.

Dropping housing prices in the USA are part of the draw, said Mireya
Durazo, a real estate agent in San Diego, across the border from
Tijuana. But the main impetus is a wave of violence unleashed by
Mexico's 18-month-old crackdown on drug cartels, she said.

"First it was the dentists, then lawyers and doctors ... now it's
teachers, owners of little stores, people from the working class,"
Durazo said.

Drug gangs are increasingly bringing civilians into the fray as they
battle soldiers and each other for control of drug smuggling
corridors, known as "plazas."

In all, about 4,000 people have died in drug-related violence since
President Felipe Calderon began deploying troops to attack the cartels
in December 2006, according to a tally by the Reforma newspaper. Polls
released recently by Reforma and El Universal newspaper show most
Mexicans say the government is losing the battle.

In Ciudad Juarez, extortion attempts and arson have plagued business
owners this year. At least seven restaurants and bars have been
torched, said Jaime Torres, a spokesman for the city's Public Safety

Real estate companies have seized upon such incidents to market U.S.

"Are you looking for a safer place to live?" advertises the website of
Latin Credit, a real estate company in San Diego that caters to
Mexican residents. "Live in tranquility!" says an ad for El Paso homes
in the Diario de la Frontera newspaper of Ciudad Juarez.

Urbina, a 45-year-old lawyer with dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship,
occasionally teaches courses at the police academy in Ciudad Juarez.
After Calderon flooded the city with troops, he and other lawyers
started getting death threats.

This year, drug traffickers launched a wave of police killings in
Ciudad Juarez. When some of his former police academy students started
winding up dead, Urbina knew it was time to go.

Urbina now commutes to work in Mexico every morning and returns to El
Paso every night. He spends 20 hours a week stuck in traffic waiting
to cross the Rio Grande.

"It's terrible, with the gasoline (prices) and the air pollution," he
said. "But a lot of people are doing it now. I think the problem of
crime is the worst it has been."

Oscar Orozco, a partner in an accounting firm in Ciudad Juarez, said
four of the company's nine partners now live in Texas.

The crisis in the U.S. housing market has made homes more affordable
for these upper-middle-class Mexicans, said Clara Jaramillo, president
of Latin Credit. Her company has sold about 50 homes in the past year
to Mexicans leaving Tijuana to move north.

In recent months, the number of Mexicans calling the company has
tripled, she said.

To avoid the cross-border commute, some Mexicans are trying to bring
their businesses with them, said Steve Ahlenius, president of the
McAllen, Texas, Chamber of Commerce.

About 70% of the people approaching the chamber for help setting up a
business are Mexican nationals, compared with about 30% two years ago,
he said. McAllen lies across the border from Reynosa, Mexico.

The violence has discouraged some Americans from crossing the border
to eat or shop in Mexico, Ahlenius said. In response, some Mexican
restaurateurs and shop owners are opening U.S. branches to recapture

In Laredo, Pavel Hernandez said he decided to open his restaurant, El
Real de Mexico, on the U.S. side because he wanted more stability.

"I've seen how businesses, businessmen and their families end up
bankrupt from being kidnapped or robbed, and many of them end up
emigrating," Hernandez said.

"It's sad that investors are investing here and not in Mexico," he
said. "My dream was to open a restaurant in Mexico. But I've abandoned
that dream because, well, you see how things are."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake