Border Economies: the Maquiladora Export Landscape

[An aerial view of a maquiladora park in Tijuana, Baja California del Norte; Mexico]

Editors Note: File under Feedback: Architecture’s New Territories, an InfraNet Lab seminar at Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design / University of Toronto. Guest post and images are by Juan Robles. -----------

The ongoing processes of trade and communication that now integrate the 21st century regional economies have created numerous territories of abundance. Among these spaces the maquiladora landscape, in the northern border of Mexico, has seen the greatest change in the last 50 years. From a manufacturing sun-belt territory limited to an area 20 kilometers south of the U.S.-Mexico border and saturated by U.S. investment; to an industry gaining strength across the Mexican country from Asian and European investment and reorganization.

[Even though the biggest concentrations of maquiladoras are found at the border, these territories of assembly are found all around Mexico.]

[Even though the biggest concentrations of maquiladoras are found at the border, these territories of assembly are found all around Mexico.]

[Of the top 100 maquiladoras in Mexico; 66 are owned by companies from the U.S., 7 from Japan, 2 from the Netherlands, 1 from Germany, 3 from Canada, 1 from Singapore, 4 from Korea, 1 from China, 1 from Sweden, 1 from Sweden, 2 from France, 1 from Australia, 1 from Taiwan, 1 from Finland, and 5 from Mexico.]

With maquiladoras mainly producing electronic equipment, clothing, plastics, furniture, appliances, and auto parts the industry has grown from under 2,000 factories in the early 1990s to over 3,000 maquiladoras concentrated along the major border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros. 

[The growth of the maquiladora industry along the U.S. - Mexico border and the increase in export goods and labor across the main border towns has created a unique interdependent but unequal economic sister-city relationship between the paired metropolises.]

These plants began as part of a Mexican Border Industrialization Program in 1965 to solve the problem of rising unemployment along border cities caused by the end of the Bracero Program in 1964 when close to 180,000 Mexican farm workers were left without work. At its peak it employed over 445,000 braceros while the current maquiladora industry employs over 1.3 million Mexican workers. The intention of the maquiladora program was to clean up the border, attract more tourists, and create more jobs, not knowing that the new manufacturing landscape would bring numerous socio-political, economic and environmental problems to the region.

[Since the maquiladora industry offers thousands of low-skill jobs, the border has been a magnet to Mexican workers seeking economic opportunity for decades. The opportunist nature of this industry creates an industrial ecology of trade, supported by and supporting millions of migrant workers living in shanty towns around the industrial parks while industry logistics are controlled on the U.S. side.]

Unlike the typical manufacturing industries in the U.S., maquiladoras are labor-intensive assembly operations that import materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly under the condition that the assembled product is exported out of the host country. These plants are mostly owned by European, Asian and U.S. corporations who take advantage of more lenient industrial development regulations and exploit cheap labor in close proximity to the U.S. market.

[Located 2.5 hour from the Long Beach Shipping Port, Tijuana had full advantage to become the biggest manufacturer of electronics in North America, especially the production of color televisions.]

Maquiladoras export 90 percent of the assembled products to the U.S. with the electronics industry having the largest share of exports concentrated in Tijuana. The previous organization of these industries had parts shipped in from the country of origin, assembled in Tijuana, and exported to the U.S.

[In the late 1990s Tijuana became the Television Capital of the world producing over 14 million televisions and monitors per year. While Mexico’s share of world television production grew from 1.7 million in 1987 to 25 million in 1998 and continued to grow to a peak of almost 35 million TVs in 2003.] 

In response to the recent economic crisis, especially seen in electronics, the industry has created new clustered maquiladora parks in the primary NAFTA distribution-based border cities. This was a strategy to make the assembly industry more efficient in order to compete with strong competition from China’s Special Economic Zones. At the turn of the century, Mexico saw close to 500 plants close and move to Asian competitor countries but has recently seen an increase in investment due to the rise in shipping costs.

[The reorganization of maquiladora industrial parks creates a new system of sub and main maquiladoras which bring the parts manufacturers and assembly plants close together while following the rules of the maquiladora program.]

The use of a cluster system started attracting part suppliers to be closer to the assembly factory. The parts that would originally be shipped from overseas have begun to be manufactured by overseas-owned companies either in Tijuana or San Diego. Each plant is an independent company that works closely with the other plants to support new just-in-time production strategies in order to increase efficiency and reduce costs. The new strategies have made the border industry more efficient but have failed to respond to the socio-economic, political, and environmental conditions that continue to surround it. Could a new type of industry cluster provide more efficient, social, or productive trade ecologies? Would larger more integrated versions of this cluster system redefine development trends along the U.S.-Mexico border? Could the clustering of different industries along a larger territory linked by a rail system create a more efficient industrial ecology that responds to the poverty in these cities?

[Using the maquiladora cluster concept, the new border bundles whole industries into separate special economic zones between the U.S. and Mexico where one industries outputs can be used as inputs for another. The desert environment along the border is exploited to create new solar farms that would generate the energy needed in these zones.] 

Also from the Feedback seminar: Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, Fei-Ling Tseng

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