Mexico’s Ghost Towns

The other side of the immigration debate

John Gibler

In Mexico's Cerrito del Agua, freshly painted concrete houses line empty streets because most of their owners are working in the United States

Cer­ri­to del Agua, pop­u­la­tion 3,000, has no paved roads – either lead­ing to it or with­in it. No restau­rants, no movie the­aters, no shop­ping malls. In fact, the small town locat­ed in the cen­tral Mex­i­can state of Zacate­cas has no mid­dle schools, high schools or col­leges; no cell phone ser­vice, no hos­pi­tal. Its sur­round­ing fields are dry and untend­ed. The streets are empty. 

The explo­sion of emi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States over the past 15 years has emp­tied much of cen­tral Mex­i­co, even reach­ing into south­ern­most states like Chi­a­pas and Yucatan. But it has sim­ply dev­as­tat­ed Zacate­cas, a dry, rolling agri­cul­tur­al region locat­ed about 400 miles north­west of Mex­i­co City. 

A lit­tle more than half of Zacate­cas’ pop­u­la­tion – about 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple – now live in the Unit­ed States, espe­cial­ly in areas sur­round­ing Atlanta, Chica­go and Los Ange­les. Between 2000 and 2005, three out of its four munic­i­pal­i­ties reg­is­tered a neg­a­tive pop­u­la­tion growth. A 2004 state law cre­at­ed two new state leg­isla­tive posts for migrants liv­ing in the Unit­ed States. In 2006, depop­u­la­tion cost the state one of its five con­gres­sion­al districts. 

Well, you’ve seen what this place is like,” says Dr. Manuel Valadez Lopez, ges­tur­ing out the door of his small pri­vate clin­ic when I ask him how emi­gra­tion has affect­ed the town. There has not been even min­i­mal devel­op­ment here. There is not a sin­gle yard of pave­ment. The few peo­ple who have side­walks in front of their hous­es built them them­selves. Most peo­ple defe­cate outdoors.” 

Lopez, 40, a native of Cer­ri­to del Agua, is one of the few to leave the town and return. All six of his broth­ers now live and work in the Unit­ed States. All four of his sis­ters mar­ried men who left to work in the Unit­ed States. 

In his teens, Lopez him­self had moved to Guadala­jara (about a five-hour dri­ve south­west of Zacate­cas) to attend high school and uni­ver­si­ty, then stayed on to study med­i­cine and receive a specialist’s train­ing in gyne­col­o­gy. He lat­er returned to Cer­ri­to del Agua for a vis­it and real­ized there was so much work to do here that I stayed,” he says. 

That was eight years ago.

The whole cul­ture now is that peo­ple grow up and go to the U.S. – their par­ents, their uncles, their broth­ers and sis­ters, every­one goes,” Lopez says. The kids who are strong and smart, they all go to the U.S. There are no basic ser­vices here; the gov­ern­ment has not car­ried out a sin­gle project.” 

The sit­u­a­tion has been so dire, he says, that the staff at the clin­ic had to install its own sewage sys­tem. There is run­ning water, but it’s not clean,” he con­tin­ues. Peo­ple get all sorts of infec­tions, a typ­i­cal Third-World situation.”

Worst of all, says Lopez, is that peo­ple who could pos­si­bly stay here and do some­thing, they all go.”

The new U.S. colony

A Jan­u­ary report by Richard Nadler, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­c­as Major­i­ty Foun­da­tion, found that the strongest state economies in the Unit­ed States are those with high num­bers of migrant work­ers. Nadler writes: An analy­sis of data from 50 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia demon­strates that a high res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion and/​or inflow of immi­grants is asso­ci­at­ed with ele­vat­ed lev­els and growth in gross state prod­uct, per­son­al income, per capi­ta per­son­al income, dis­pos­able income, per capi­ta dis­pos­able income, medi­an house­hold income and medi­an per capi­ta income.”

Those who are leav­ing Mex­i­co – those whose land goes unplant­ed, whose roads remain unpaved – are labor­ing in the Unit­ed States, build­ing shop­ping malls and fac­to­ries, wash­ing dish­es in restau­rants and cafés, pick­ing grapes and pulling lettuce. 

They are cre­at­ing with­in the U.S. econ­o­my pre­cise­ly the goods and ser­vices that their home­towns lack. At the same time, their ane­mic home economies fal­ter on the brink of collapse. 

I think that the U.S.’s plan is to make Mex­i­co into a kind of colony,” says Lopez, with a half smile. Peo­ple go to the U.S. to work and earn dol­lars. They come back to Mex­i­co and spend their dol­lars on Amer­i­can prod­ucts. It’s a nice, round busi­ness.” He con­tin­ues: Every­one here depends on the U.S. If this isn’t a colony, then how do you define colony?”

Con­demned to disappear

In the heat­ed debates over U.S. immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, the press­ing ques­tions seem to be How many immi­grants should be allowed in, if any?” and How should they be processed into the sys­tem?” But rarely con­sid­ered is what this mas­sive influx is doing to Mexico. 

With near­ly half a mil­lion Mex­i­cans cross­ing the U.S.-Mexico bor­der every year to look for work, Mex­i­co has become the world’s largest exporter of its peo­ple. More peo­ple flee des­ti­tu­tion in Mex­i­co than in Chi­na or India – each with pop­u­la­tions 10 times larg­er than Mexico’s.

Their remit­tances – the mon­ey Mex­i­can immi­grants in the Unit­ed States save and send back to their fam­i­lies – equaled $24 bil­lion last year, and made up the third-largest source of rev­enue for the Mex­i­can econ­o­my (after ille­gal drugs and oil). 

The­o­ries of migra­tion always show the inter­ests of the North,” says Raul Del­ga­do Wise, direc­tor of the Grad­u­ate School of Devel­op­ment Stud­ies at the Autonomous Uni­ver­si­ty of Zacate­cas and an expert on migra­tion. He says migrants born in Mex­i­co con­tribute 8 per­cent of the U.S. gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP) – about $900 bil­lion – which is more than Mexico’s entire GDP.

Wise is one of sev­er­al researchers study­ing Mex­i­can migra­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zacate­cas. Togeth­er they pub­lish an inter­na­tion­al jour­nal called Migra­tion and Devel­op­ment and are lay­ing the ground­work for an alter­na­tive think tank to the World Bank, which will be called the Con­sor­tium for Crit­i­cal Devel­op­ment Studies. 

With all of this, we need to see real­ly how much it is cost­ing Mex­i­co, how much Mex­i­co is los­ing,” Wise says. 

He says that the mass migra­tion from Mex­i­co to the Unit­ed States can­not be ful­ly under­stood with­out con­sid­er­ing the U.S.-Mexico eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion. Begun in the 80s, this inte­gra­tion reached its max­i­mum expres­sion with the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA), which took effect Jan. 11994

What Mex­i­co real­ly exports, Wise argues, is labor.

The sup­posed growth in Mexico’s man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor is a smoke­screen,” he wrote in a 2005 arti­cle in Latin Amer­i­can Per­spec­tives, a schol­ar­ly jour­nal. Almost half of all man­u­fac­tur­ing exports come from the maquilado­ra assem­bly plants (for­eign-owned fac­to­ries in Mex­i­co) that import pro­duc­tion mate­ri­als and export their final prod­ucts – and their prof­its. Mex­i­co adds only the labor.

Neolib­er­al poli­cies – first imple­ment­ed in the 80s, and lat­er through NAF­TA – cut gov­ern­ment invest­ment in pub­lic works and agri­cul­ture, pri­va­tized key state enter­pris­es and cre­at­ed low inter­est rates that attract­ed for­eign cap­i­tal. These poli­cies opened the way for a 25-fold increase in maquilado­ra sales between 1982 and 2003 (though that growth peaked in 2000 and has since fall­en as maquilado­ra own­ers seek ever low­er wages and loos­er envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to com­pete with China’s abun­dant labor supply).

From 1994 to 2002, Mex­i­co lost more than 1 mil­lion agri­cul­tur­al jobs. And from 1980 to 2002 – the same peri­od maquilado­ra sales soared – migra­tion from Mex­i­co to the Unit­ed States grew by 452 per­cent, with more than 400,000 peo­ple cross­ing each year, on average. 

In Mex­i­co, we have export­ed the fac­to­ry of migrants,” says Rodol­fo Gar­cia Zamo­ra, an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor who also teach­es at the Grad­u­ate School of Devel­op­ment Stud­ies. Zamo­ra, author of Migra­tion, Remit­tances and Local Devel­op­ment, says Mex­i­co is mort­gag­ing its future” with migra­tion and remit­tances. In the 10 Mex­i­can states with the longest migra­tion his­to­ries, he says, 65 per­cent of munic­i­pal­i­ties have a neg­a­tive pop­u­la­tion growth. This means that in the future,” says Zamo­ra, these com­mu­ni­ties will not be able to repro­duce, nei­ther eco­nom­i­cal­ly nor social­ly, because the demo­graph­ics of migra­tion have con­demned them to disappear.” 

No escape?

The Unit­ed States econ­o­my demands cheap labor. Mex­i­co has an excess of labor­ers. We com­ple­ment each oth­er,” says Fer­nan­do Rob­le­do, direc­tor of the Zacate­cas State Migra­tion Insti­tute, a gov­ern­ment office that admin­is­ters devel­op­ment projects in con­junc­tion with sev­er­al U.S. migrant organizations.

He dis­miss­es talk of depop­u­la­tion and an aban­doned coun­try­side as fatal­ism.” Zacate­cas has a 120-year his­to­ry of migra­tion,” he says. Migra­tion is historical.” 

Rob­le­do describes the state government’s devel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties as vari­a­tions on the three for one” pro­gram – where local, state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments match each dol­lar pro­vid­ed by U.S. migrant orga­ni­za­tions for use in local devel­op­ment projects, such as build­ing inter­state high­ways head­ing north and con­struct­ing green­hous­es for grow­ing export crops. 

If you had $50 mil­lion in the bud­get,” Rob­le­do says, would you use that to increase pro­duc­tion in the coun­try­side or to build an inter­state high­way? It is a polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic decision.” 

Rob­le­do puts pri­or­i­ty on the highway.

But doesn’t build­ing super-high­ways toward the Mexico‑U.S. bor­der and chang­ing agri­cul­ture to a cash-crop export repro­duce the very neolib­er­al poli­cies that dis­pos­sess migrants in the first place?

We do not live in a social­ist coun­try,” he responds, where the gov­ern­ment con­trols every aspect of the econ­o­my. We are in a neolib­er­al coun­try. We can­not escape from neolib­er­al economics.” 

Gar­cia Zamo­ra, who helped write the Zacate­cas state devel­op­ment plan, is uncon­vinced. The main prob­lem, he says, is the lack of real polit­i­cal alter­na­tives to neolib­er­al­ism. Accord­ing to Zamo­ra, there is only one polit­i­cal par­ty in Mex­i­co – the PRI,” refer­ring to Mexico’s noto­ri­ous­ly cor­rupt Insti­tu­tion­al Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Par­ty, which ruled the coun­try from 1929 to 2000. The PRD gov­ern­ment in Zacate­cas now acts just like a PRI gov­ern­ment,” Zamo­ra says, this time ref­er­enc­ing the Par­ty of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rev­o­lu­tion, the oppo­si­tion par­ty to the PRI. The same lack of plan­ning and nepo­tism. It spends its time main­ly imple­ment­ing fed­er­al pro­grams. They draft­ed a good devel­op­ment plan, but they … have nev­er car­ried out a seri­ous region­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment pol­i­cy that seeks to dimin­ish the mas­sive exo­dus of 40,000 Zacate­cas res­i­dents who aban­don Mex­i­co every year.” 

Aban­doned by migration

A few years ago, Mario Garc’a left Zacate­cas to work in con­struc­tion in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but after about five months he decid­ed to return to El Car­gadero, a tiny town about 50 miles west of the city of Zacate­cas, the state capital.

I thought, In Mex­i­co, if you work a cou­ple of shifts, you can live OK’, ” he says. With­out so many lux­u­ries and free­ways, but you can live a more peace­ful life.”

Garc’a, in his ear­ly 40s, is a small farmer and munic­i­pal del­e­gate. His wife and three daugh­ters live in El Car­gadero. All nine of his broth­ers and sis­ters, and more than 50 cousins, live in the Unit­ed States. 

El Car­gadero, with a pop­u­la­tion of about 350, and a pop­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States of more than 1,000, is sup­posed to be a suc­cess sto­ry. Most of its roads are fresh­ly paved, and res­i­dents have elec­tric­i­ty and potable water, thanks to remit­tances and the three for one” program. 

There are many points of view, but as you can see here, this is a com­mu­ni­ty aban­doned by migra­tion,” Garc’a says. The gov­ern­ment should work to keep peo­ple in the coun­try, to find jobs, bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions. Here we have pret­ty streets, but where are the people?” 

Dri­ving from the city of Zacate­cas to El Car­gadero, mile after mile of emp­ty fields, closed restau­rants and board­ed-up hous­es span the coun­try­side. José Manuel, a taxi dri­ver, who worked in Cal­i­for­nia for four years, wash­ing dish­es and mak­ing sal­ads, accom­pa­nies me on the dri­ve. He says he remem­bers when these roads weren’t paved yet, but the fields were full of corn and beans. It is now vast emptiness. 

Nobody works most of this land any­more,” he says. The own­ers went to the U.S. and left the land behind.”

This is pre­cise­ly what brought Mario Garc’a back. The coun­try­side is bro­ken,” he says. The rur­al econ­o­my needs to be reac­ti­vat­ed. But we export one of the most valu­able things: our work­ers. And now we don’t pro­duce anything.” 

The legal­iza­tion debate is mis­guid­ed, he says, because it focus­es, always, on the U.S. econ­o­my: how many immi­grants to allow in and how to stamp their pass­ports. That focus needs to shift to include Mexico.

Mex­i­co does not need an open bor­der with the U.S. that invites Mex­i­cans to go work there. Peo­ple always talk about legal­iza­tion, but no, what needs to be legal­ized is the Mexican’s abil­i­ty to stay [home] so that Mex­i­co can grow and produce.”

John Gibler, a for­mer Glob­al Exchange Media fel­low, has report­ed from Mex­i­co for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Col­or­lines and Yes!. He is the author of Mex­i­co Uncon­quered: Chron­i­cles of Pow­er and Revolt (2009) and To Die in Mex­i­co: Dis­patch­es from Inside the Drug War (2011).
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