Along the Border – Immeasurable fear overrules reality

MATAMOROS — Violence in this border city, residents say, is often left unreported by authorities yet exaggerated when caught on tape by the media, making it difficult to measure.

But if there is some certainty in the muddle of misinformation, many say it is this: Fear is ravaging the public perception of Matamoros. People no longer cross as frequently into the Mexican border city as they did in the past, and its retail businesses and restaurants are hurting.

“It is not to say that there have not been dangerous incidents, but we can say the same for this side of the border,” said Susan Ritter, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. “These things (crimes and violent acts) get reported on and repeated and exaggerated, and on and on they go until everybody thinks it is gospel.”

Regardless of the case and regardless of where it occurs, Ritter says, “Generally, the fear is larger than the crime.”

One business struggling in the wake of such unsubstantiated reports is García’s, a restaurant and tourist shop situated on the Texas-Mexico border near the Gateway International Bridge. Nearly everyone knows the longstanding establishment and its charismatic, self-made owner, Emigdio Manuel García. In its heyday, the place was one of the most popular venues in the city for natives and tourists alike.

But the Matamoros businessman and his son, Raul García, recently described what they called an “avalanche of rumors” within the past year. False stories abound, Manuel García says, from cartel members taking a cut of his profits, to the raping of a young woman in the parking lot, to the abduction of a prominent Rio Grande Valley businessman from the restaurant grounds.

“People are saying drug lords have taken over my business — that I am no longer its owner. But I am here every day, even when I am sick, and I absolutely deny all of these rumors,” said Manuel García, who opened the restaurant in 1944 and has expanded the chain throughout the Valley.

Other well-known tourist spots throughout the city are facing similar problems. At Mercado Juarez, a once-bustling downtown marketplace, the formerly noisy, colorful warren of halls and passages lined by stores has lost much of its luster. About 40 percent of businesses have closed shop since the political and drug-related violence began to increase a few years ago, said Efrain Gonzalez, who owns Mirtha’s Place, a leather goods and jewelry store in the Mercado.

“They say Matamoros is a dangerous hot spot, but that is not true,” he said. “It is like in any other part of the world: If you come looking for drugs or trouble, you are going to find problems.”

Gonzalez has worked at the shop inside the market since 1954, like his father and grandfather before him. Perhaps the last time the level of fear was so high in Matamoros, he said, was about 21 years ago after Mark Kilroy, a Texas college student, disappeared from the city and later was found slain by a cult of drug traffickers. But not once has he ever seen sales this low — almost a 90 percent drop in profits, Gonzalez said.

Such sales decreases embody the historical link of the two sister cities through periods of boom and bust, said Anthony Knopp, a history professor at UTB/TSC.

During the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, for instance, prosperity in Brownsville spurred by agricultural and railroad development was cut short by war in Matamoros. Amid peso devaluations in Mexico in the 1980s and ‘90s, a lower number of Mexicans would cross the border into Brownsville, hurting the U.S. city’s economy, Knopp said.

The latest obstacle in the interchange between the two cities comes amid an ongoing crackdown on Mexico’s entrenched criminal organizations.

The campaign began in late 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers to Mexico’s northern border in a sweeping initiative against the country’s drug cartels.

Along the border, drug-related bloodshed at first seemed limited to Nuevo Laredo but then spread to Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa before reaching Matamoros, Knopp said. The fear in Matamoros escalated in September last year, when stray bullets from a gun battle in the Mexican city blasted across the river, striking buildings and a parked car on the UTB/TSC campus.

Late the next month, Latin American news outlets reported a shootout in front of a Matamoros primary school with more than 100 parents, teachers and students inside. And still a month later, a Brownsville woman was hit by a bullet in a Matamoros home from what Mexican authorities believed was a misfire by Mexican army troops. She died from the injury.

“Violent episodes had happened sporadically over a period of years, but it had never reached a point to where the public felt endangered,” Knopp said. “Now there is a perception that you could be at risk just by walking down the street.”

At Mercado Juarez, on the opposite side from Gonzalez’s store, Blanca Rosa Gonzalez sat behind the counter of the Taxco Curios Shop, which sells jewelry and souvenirs.

“We are not low in sales,” she says. “We are absolutely broke.”

To be sure, almost all Mexican border businesses had a rough 2009 as they faced a historic economic recession, an influenza outbreak in early spring and more stringent immigration policies in the summer. But business owners, asked what has caused the most revenue losses, all gave the same response: the perceived violence in the city.

The economic impact of Mexican violence on the retail sector is hard to judge, Matamoros business leaders said. No agency or government entity tracks revenue losses for the city, and the few reports that do exist are spotty and outdated.

Commerce leaders point to employment as the No. 1 indicator of how the economy is doing, but the roughly 10,000 jobs Matamoros lost in 2009 were primarily in the maquiladora industry, which took a major hit due to the crisis in the U.S. automotive industry.

Some financial forecasts for the border region are more positive. Overall, the economy of the Brownsville and Matamoros area is fairly stable, said Gilberto Salinas, spokesman for the Brownsville Economic Development Council. The economic recession had less of an impact on the area than it did along other parts of the border, and it is gradually recovering from the hit.

Businesses are also still interested in investing in the region, Salinas said. But while the sister cities will continue to trade, he said, “Socially and culturally, the violence is creating a very bad perception of the border to the rest of the world.”


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