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Business Leaders, Workers Tied To Mexico's Export Economy React To Threat Of Tariffs


On the Mexican side of the border, U.S. tariffs would also have a major impact. NPR's Carrie Kahn spoke with business leaders and workers tied to Mexico's export economy in Tijuana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On a busy Tijuana boulevard in front of several U.S. factories, Rodrigo Mendoza is sitting next to a taco truck, chowing down on a huge burrito he grabbed during his morning break. He packs up all the heart valves, stents and catheters assembled at a medical equipment plant for delivery to U.S. hospitals.

RODRIGO MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He isn't worried about President Trump's threat to slap tariffs on Mexican products. "That man has conflicts with the entire world," he says. "I just don't think he'll go through with it in the end," he adds. President Trump says the tariffs will keep going up if Mexico doesn't stop the migrants. Most of the factory workers munching on fish tacos and salsa-drenched dishes also shrug off concern that Trump's tariffs could hurt their jobs except Gustavo Ambrez.


KAHN: He's cooking long strips of fried fish in a vat of oil in his food truck.

GUSTAVO AMBREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He jokes with the workers that they better hold on to their dollars since the peso is going to drop to 30-to-1. He may be exaggerating, but the peso has taken a dive since Trump surprised Mexico with this tax threat. The peso plunge will make commodities in Tijuana more expensive. And if Mexico hits back with retaliatory tariffs, Tijuana shoppers will take their money out of the city and over the border to buy staples, says incoming economic development director for Baja California state Mario Escobedo.

MARIO ESCOBEDO: I fill up my tank and buy milk and whatever. That is a problem for border cities. Most of the products that we sell in Tijuana are imported from the United States.

KAHN: But Escobedo says Trump's hope that businesses will pack up and head back to the U.S. is misguided. Even with tariffs, Tijuana is still a better bargain for foreign firms. And besides, he says, it's pretty obvious that Trump is posturing for reelection.

ESCOBEDO: Most of the investors are looking at long-term investments - you know, 10 years, 15 years, 25 years. Nobody is going to decide on something that's being done by somebody who wants to win the next election.

KAHN: That's been the experience for Ossie Diaz. His company manages 43 foreign factories, or maquiladoras, in Mexico and says only one potential investor has put their plans on hold out of fear of Trump's tariffs. And as we tour one of his factory floors just a few miles from the border, workers assemble custom-made auto parts. We stop at a station where a woman is sewing leather accents onto a wooden steering wheel.

OSSIE DIAZ: She's sewing the leather right there manually.

KAHN: That's very labor intensive.

DIAZ: Can you imagine this kind of process in the states, how expensive it's going to become? So there is no way that operations like this can succeed in the states.

KAHN: And workers here say it makes no sense for Trump to try and force Tijuana factories to close. What will all those workers do, they speculate, but head over the border to the U.S. along with the Central Americans and other migrants looking for work? Sixty-one-year-old Manuela Lopez Garcia looks up from her stitching of the steering wheel to chime in.

MANUELA LOPEZ GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's just unfair what Trump is doing to us in Mexico," she says. "We're just hard workers here." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.