Guest Columns

SMITH: THE MANY SIDES OF OUR NEIGHBOR TO THE SOUTH

Colorado involvement is helping Mexico

Contributing Columnist

President Obama’s recent trip to Mexico is good news for Colorado. Exports to Mexico are up. Its manufacturing sector is increasingly strong and will continue to attract U.S. companies that had previously off shored operations to China. Mexico is finally focusing on the corruption in its educational system and the need to make more competitive its telecom and oil sectors. Drug-related violence appears to be down, although it’s hard to have confidence in the Mexican reporting system.

On the U.S. side, there finally appears to be some progress on immigration, although that may be because Republicans have finally realized that they can’t continue to ignore the Hispanic vote rather than being truly committed to resolving the issue.

Colorado has a long history of involvement with Mexico. On the business side, we were strong supporters of NAFTA back in the early 1990s, the first state to open a trade office in Guadalajara and the first state to develop a joint environmental project with Mexico — the Denver-Mexico City Air Quality Initiative. Those efforts have been continued by subsequent governors. Governor John Hickenlooper, for example, quickly set up the Governor’s Trade and Tourism Ambassador Program after his election, made Mexico one of the three key countries and has visited the country. His highly energetic and skilled Mexico trade team is bringing Mexican buyers to Colorado this month, preparing to attend “Green Expo” in Mexico City in September, providing grants to help Colorado companies travel to Mexico and has a trade office in Mexico City. Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar has also been active in opening Mexican markets for agricultural products and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took a delegation to Mexico City last December to inaugurate the Volaris non-stop flight.

Exports to Mexico are now about $1 billion a year, making it our second largest market.

On the justice side, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers had helped form the Council of Western Attorneys General (CWAG) which offers much needed training for Mexican prosecutors and investigators, a key step in improving Mexico’s antiquated judicial system. Since 2008, over 100 training programs have been held and training has been provided to more than 12,000 members of Mexico’s legal community. Improving the justice system in Mexico will also improve the climate for doing business there.

A third key area is one that wasn’t mentioned in Obama’s overly rosy comments about Mexico — the severe poverty and the almost total lack of humanitarian assistance provided to Mexicans by their government. In March, however, I went to Juárez to participate in the extraordinary work of a Colorado-based non-profit called Missions Ministries.

Missions Ministries was founded in 1992 by Ed and Carol Bullis from Littleton. Ed, then a manager with Public Service Company, had been to a house building in Tijuana, Mexico, an experience that changed his life. After working with several other organizations, he and Carol eventually decided to strike out on their own and start Missions Ministries. Financially it was a struggle but the results have been astonishing — over 800 houses built, 15 churches and, due to the influence of Carol, the establishment of two libraries.

The leader of the mission I participated in was John Ortmann, a resident of Highlands Ranch and an engineer in the aerospace industry. He has been leading these missions since 2010; he and his wife, Jen and their two children, Gracie (7) and Allie (5) had all been numerous times.

This mission of 42 men, women and children split into two groups and built two houses. Ortmann was in charge of one and another Coloradan, Hayden French, Director of Sales for Smith & Nephew, a manufacturer of medical products was in charge of the other. Hayden and his wife, Jacque started going to Juárez in 2008, have made about 12 trips and usually take their two girls with them. Bill Orange, a former systems engineer with Jones Intercable in Colorado, now lives in El Paso and is in charge of the Missions Ministries compound where we stayed and the local work crew. The compound itself was designed by Denver architect Kevin Ross.

Building houses isn’t all that Missions Ministries does in this area of Juárez where they have been working. One spinoff is typified by Quinn Anderson, also a long-time Coloradan, who formed Babies of Juárez in order to bring diapers and formula on her visits. The results in terms of infant health are already visible.

In less than two days, we completed two houses of about 450 square feet each with three rooms, all furnished with furniture from the United States, and at a cost of about $8,300 each. What I remember most, however, isn’t the tears on the faces of these two families as they received the keys to their new homes but the area where they lived. It was a neighborhood where the main industry was making adobe bricks in huge ovens. As we drove in that first day, these ovens were letting off huge black clouds. Is this the end of the earth? I asked myself. No, it’s the Mexico that Obama didn’t see, the Mexico just across our border where people live lives of desperation that we can’t imagine. That’s why the volunteers from organizations like Missions Ministries are so important. That’s why I hope that the two Presidents — Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto — are making a deeper commitment to Mexico than their rosy comments implied.

Morgan Smith is a member of Governor Hickenlooper’s Mexico Ambassador group, a former State Representative and Director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He travels every month to Mexico to work with and write about various humanitarian projects. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.