Juarez businessmen find peace of mind across the border

About 10,000 businesses in Juarez, Mexico closed in the last year and a half due to the recession and escalating drug violence.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The reports of all the horrible violence of Mexico's drug war can pass you by pretty easily if you let it. But let's just stop for a second and imagine that it's news from your country or from your hometown. This week a female police chief was killed after only two months on the job. A 14-year-old hitman was arrested today, 14 years old. Charged with beheading four people.

Three years after the drug wars started in earnest, thousands of Mexicans have left the country. That includes business owners who moved across the border, north to El Paso, Tex. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports that the corporate transition into the United States is not so easy.


Monica Ortiz Uribe: It's a Thursday morning at a Chinese restaurant in El Paso. Men wearing ties stand around in clusters laughing and patting each other on the back. This is the weekly meeting of La Red, or The Network. The members are mostly Mexican business owners who've fled the violence in Ciudad Juarez.

Alfredo Trabulsi: Everybody knows why everybody else is here. No one talks about it, nobody asks anything, 'cause we already know.

Alfredo Trabulsi has an online marketing business. He says if you were to ask, you'd hear horrible stories. One member escaped his own kidnapping. Others know colleagues, friends and loved ones who were murdered.

Sound of radio and man speaking in Spanish

At a furniture showroom in El Paso, a business owner radios his workers back in Juarez. The owner doesn't want to give too many details about himself for his own safety. He fled Juarez four months ago convinced that his life was in danger. Now he monitors his furniture factory in Juarez through 16 surveillance cameras.

Businessman:

I used to work in my office from seven in the morning till 12, noon, and then I'd go to the plant and check everything myself. And now, well, I check the cameras all day long. I have four months watching TV.

The distance complicates things that used to be simple. For example, creating a new couch design.

Businessman: When I make a new frame, I used to do it in one day, and now it takes almost a week.

He started his company 27 years ago. Many of his original workers are still with him. Now he must decide whether to move the factory from Juarez to El Paso.

Businessman: I'm learning how to make business here. It's different, it's a lot of difference to run a business in Mexico and the United States.

He must consider things like tax laws, worker benefits and wages before making the move. For Mexican businesses already established in El Paso, life is a little easier.

It's an hour before the dinner rush at Maria Chuchena restaurant in west El Paso. The popular chain was founded by three brothers in Ciudad Juarez. Business there has been bad in the last three years.

Omar Herrera is the youngest of the brothers.

Omar Herrera: Sales went down pretty harshly because of the violence. We had to close one of the restaurants that we had in Juarez because of it.

Having a restaurant in El Paso gives the brothers a peace of mind. And that's exactly what most business owners fleeing across the border need. Having a network of colleagues who understand their predicament only contributes to that peace of mind.

Back at the La Red gathering, busboys are clearing off the tables as the meeting comes to an end. The organization has grown quickly. In eight months, the group went from six members to 200. Jose Luis Mauricio Esparza is the president of La Red. He moved his publishing business to El Paso 13 years ago and is one of the advisers who helps newcomers make the transition from Mexico to the United States.

Mauricio says the switch is as much about culture as it as about logistics.

Jose Luis Mauricio Esparza: When I go out for a lunch meeting in El Paso, it takes me half an hour. It's yes-or-no business. When I do a business meeting in Juarez, it takes me two or three hours. After a few tequilas, we talk we get to know each other more. So you have to be aware that the way we do business is different.

Mauricio says, in a way, his members are fortunate. They have more options than most people in Mexico for escaping the violence. As border residents, many were born in El Paso but lived all their life in Juarez so they have the benefit of dual citizenship.

Mauricio: All of us like to learn new things, and this is the opportunity for us to know and develop new sense of entrepreneurship mentality.

Like any good business owner, Mauricio believes in seizing every new opportunity even if it's a result of a tragedy.

In El Paso, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe for Marketplace.

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