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Americans watch Mexico closely on election day

Photo by Peter O'Dowd

Standing on the edge of an unfinished railroad bridge outside of Brownsville, Texas, businessman John Wood can see across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

"We are tied together," Wood said of the two countries. "It's kind of like an umbilical cord."

The rail line will connect Brownsville with Matamoros, Mexico, when completed. It's the first of its kind to connect the countries in a century.

Texas does more business with its southern neighbor than any other state, according to trade statistics. And that's a big reason why Wood says Mexico's upcoming election means as much to him as the battle between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

"If Mexico isn't doing well it doesn’t make much of a difference what's happening in Washington," Wood said, adding that the next Mexican president could help make Mexico stable again.

And that would mean, "a better life, for not only me, but for everyone who lives in the area."

Some Americans along the border have a huge stake in Mexican politics. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars estimates the two countries traded a record $500 billion in goods and services last year. Investment fell off during the recession, but has steadily climbed back despite escalating drug violence.

Analysts say business would strengthen even more if Mexico solved its cartel problem.

Small U.S. Businesses Look Toward Mexico

That makes sense to small business owners like Daniel Hong. He owns a general goods store a few yards from Brownsville’s port of entry. Hong says sales have dropped 60 percent in recent years, and it doesn’t have much to do with the economy.

"My clientele are mostly Mexican nationals," he said. "If they're afraid to leave their houses, I'm not going to have customers, simply put."

So Hong has an opinion on the election. On a personal level, he supports the National Action Party, or the PAN, and the continuation of President Felipe Calderon’s drug war offensive. But on a business level he supports the PRI. The Institutional Revolutionary Party ran Mexico for 70 years and kept relative peace by turning a blind eye to the cartels.

"They will give the Northern Mexican states more calm, a little bit more tranquility. That will lead to more people coming over, which leads to more sales," Hong explained.


That is the heart of this election, according to Tony Zavaleta, director of the Texas Center for Border and Transnational Studies at the University of Texas, Brownsville.

"The election of the president is a referendum on who best return Mexico to normal," Zavaleta said.

It’s not just businesses with ties to both countries, he added. It's Americans -- like him -- who see Mexico as a second home, as a place where friends and families live.

"We live with one foot in each country. All the time. I know it can get better. We have to hope this election will put it on the right track to getting better."

More than a thousand miles to the west, in Nogales, Ariz., a line of commercial trucks rumbles toward the international port.

Last year, nearly 5 billion pounds of grapes, peppers, tomatoes and other fresh produce moved through here, according to the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Some of it belonged to Gerardo Ritz, whose family owns farms in Sinaloa. Ritz runs the business side from Arizona. With literally a foot in both worlds, Ritz also closely watches the security debate in Mexico.

"It's something that makes our business stay in business, and keeps us as an American entity investing in Mexico," he said.

Ritz added that military checkpoints on Mexican highways keep his produce safe on the journey north. He credits Calderon’s offensive against the cartels.

As a Mexican citizen, Ritz won't say which candidate he'll vote for. But he said he expects Mexico’s next president to follow Calderon's lead.

"We don't want to see organized crime get into the produce business," he said. "Whoever runs the country for the next six years has got to continue."

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