Mexico offers 3-for-1 on ex-pats' money

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TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: A key part of the trade relationship between the United States and Latin America is cash -- foreign workers in this country send tens of billions of dollars back home. Mexicans living abroad, many of them in the United States, are expected to send more than $25 billion this year.

Most of that will go to their families -- but communities benefit, too, thanks to a matching program with a twist. From KUT in Austin, Joy Diaz has the story.


Joy Diaz: Ever since Esteban Castillo was a child, the plaza in his hometown has been in disrepair. Castillo grew up in San Nicolas, a small town in central Mexico. He remembers the trees in the plaza had grown so much that their roots had cracked the cement around the benches.

Esteban Castillo (translation): Often, when people were walking around chatting, they would trip over and fall. They would kid around and say that our plaza was so spectacular that it made people fall in awe of it.

Castillo is 48 now. He left Mexico for Texas more than 30 years ago. He fixes heavy-duty tires in Austin for a living. Although he's thousands of miles away, he has always hoped he could do something about the plaza, but the repairs would run more than $60,000.

Then, last year, Castillo was at the Mexican Consulate in Austin. He heard about a program that could help him fix his beloved plaza: He could send money back to Mexico for repairs, and the government would match his donation. The program is called "tres por uno," or "three for one." Ambassador Jorge Guajardo:

Ambassador Jorge Guajardo: Whether it would be schools, public places, lighting -- whatever it may be -- for every dollar the Mexicans living abroad put into this program, the federal government adds one dollar, the state government adds another dollar and the municipal government adds another dollar.

Castillo told some friends about tres por uno. In June, they started sending money back home for the project. But many Mexicans are still skeptical about the program. Bryan Roberts leads the Mexican Center at the University of Texas.

Bryan Roberts: The historical memory of these communities, if you talk to people here, one of the first things they'll say is: "We wouldn't trust our home state governor, etcetera, to have charge of our money.

Other critics say "tres por uno" sounds like the Mexican government is encouraging its citizens to leave. Then they will send money back home and fund the country's programs.

Since 2002, "tres por uno" has brought in $300 million, and grown from a handful of projects into more than a thousand last year. Agustin Escobar is a social anthropologist in Guadalajara. He has studied the program since it began in 2002 -- he says the biggest problem with "tres por uno" is that it's too small.

Agustin Escobar: Out of every $1,000 that go back to Mexico, about $2 are invested in this program. So if we wanted it to grow -- say to at least 10 times its present size, which would be very good for public works in Mexico -- you would really have to increase the bureaucracies. And that's something that the government is not willing to do.

One thing the government has done is match donations coming from the U.S. quickly. Remember Esteban Castillo? He recently visited San Nicolas. He says the work on the plaza is moving along -- he and his friends plan to have a ribbon-cutting next year for the town's annual celebration of its patron saint.

In Austin, I'm Joy Diaz for Marketplace.

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