Drug war sparks exodus of affluent Mexicans

August 26, 2011

For years, national security experts have warned that Mexico’s drug violence could send a wave of refugees fleeing to the United States. Now, the refugees are arriving — and they are driving BMWs and snapping up half-million-dollar homes.

Tens of thousands of well-off Mexicans have moved north of the border in a quiet exodus over the past few years, according to local officials, border experts and demographers. Unlike the much larger population of illegal immigrants, they are being warmly welcomed.

“It goes counter to the conventional wisdom about the Mexican presence in the United States,” San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said. The influx “is positive, it is entrepreneurial . . . and one of the keys to a very successful growing city like San Antonio.”

Castro estimates that Mexicans own at least 50,000 of the approximately 500,000 homes and apartments in his city of 1.3 million, which has a vibrant Hispanic culture. Many are in gated communities that have sprung up in the city’s sun-baked northern hills. One neighborhood built around a country club has so many residents from the Mexican city of Monterrey that it has been dubbed “Sonterrey.”

“I’ve never seen so many Maseratis and Porsches in my neighborhood,” said Carl Bohn, a businessman who lives in what is formally called Sonterra, a tranquil development of homes with red-tiled roofs, palm trees, colonnaded entrances and backyard pools.

Affluent Mexicans have long visited the United States for business and shopping. What’s different now is that they are coming to stay, fleeing cartel wars that have left more than 37,000 Mexicans dead in four years, according to U.S. and Mexican officials and analysts. The number of investment visas granted to Mexicans has risen sharply over the past five years.

“It’s a very substantial flow; I would say probably the largest since the 1920s, the last great period of upheaval in Mexico,” said Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio who served in President Clinton’s Cabinet. “We have whole areas of San Antonio that are being transformed.”

The size of the new wave is difficult to measure, since some of the new arrivals hold dual citizenship or U.S. work visas or already had American vacation homes. One Mexican think tank, the Security and Civic Culture Observatory, estimated last year that 230,000 people had fled the violence-wracked border city of Juarez, with half going across Mexico’s northern border.

But Aaron Terrazas, a policy analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, found in a recent study that most of those fleeing Juarez appeared to be moving to other parts of Chihuahua state, not the United States. Still, Terrazas said he found a noticeable increase in one segment of those actually leaving Chihuahua: “the highly educated.”

The well-heeled Mexicans are arriving as illegal immigration from Mexico is on the decline, due to the weak U.S. economy, border crime and more opportunities for young Mexicans at home. Illegal immigration has plunged from an estimated half-million Mexicans a year a decade ago to 200,000 or fewer.

Not all the new arrivals are wealthy, of course. There are prominent cases of Mexican journalists, mayors and police chiefs hounded by the cartels who have fled to the United States. Some members of the “Mexodus” — as it was dubbed in a recent study by four U.S. and Mexican universities — simply moved their mom-and-pop restaurants across the border.

“All these businesses are Mexican,” said Alejandro Quiroz, a Mexican-born businessman, sitting outside a Starbucks in Sonterra and gesturing to a bank and gourmet Mexican take-out shop. Women in designer sunglasses and high-heeled shoes left the Starbucks, chatting in Spanish.

“Generally, people come with capital,” Quiroz said. “They buy houses, cars. And then they say, I want to invest in a business.”

In another sign of the influx, private jet flights between San Antonio and Mexico nearly doubled between 2008 and 2010, reaching 3,997 in 2010, according to city officials.

The city’s Mexican Entrepreneurs Association, founded 15 years ago, has grown from a handful of members to 200. On a recent evening, dozens of members and guests sipped red wine and nibbled canapes of smoked salmon and roast beef at a networking event.

A bearded man in a white guayabera dress shirt said he had moved to the city in December after narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt in Monterrey. Like many of the new arrivals, he commutes to Mexico, flying there for two-week periods to run his cattle-feed firm.

“We can’t dismantle our business in Mexico. People depend on us” for their jobs, said the entrepreneur, who identified himself only as Jose for security reasons.

He feared for the safety of his wife and two college-age daughters in a city where cartel gunmen throw up blockades on busy streets and dangle battered bodies from bridges.

“We were always in danger,” Jose said. “Getting my family here was important.”

They now live in The Dominion, San Antonio’s most exclusive gated community. Jose is looking to set up several businesses in the city and get U.S. work visas through those investments.

“We want to respect the laws,” he said.

The number of investment visas given to Mexicans has risen sharply. A total of 10,512 E-1 and E-2 investment visas were granted to Mexicans from 2006 to 2010, a 73 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to the State Department. Mexican professionals have obtained tens of thousands of other kinds of visas in recent years. Some complain, however, that the process has gotten more difficult, with increased fees and government scrutiny.

But many of the newcomers don’t need visas. Take Pablo Jacobo “Jack” Suneson. He was born in Laredo, making him a U.S. citizen, although he grew up with his Mexican mother just south of the border. They ran a well-known craft shop, Marti’s, in Nuevo Laredo.

That was back when tourists would throng Nuevo Laredo’s bars and shops. But with the rising drug violence, “a whole industry has evaporated along the northern Mexican border,” he said.

Suneson now operates Marti’s out of a building a few blocks from the Alamo. He sells the finest Mexican crafts — $189 silk scarves by the trendy designers Pineda Covalin and 198 salt-and-pepper shakers by the Taxco silver artist Emilia Castillo.

“This is where the new boom, the new action is. It’s not in Monterrey or Guadalajara, where they should be bringing up a new middle class,” Suneson said. “It really should be happening there.”

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