MCALLEN, Texas – A few years ago, Keith Patridge, president of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, told the Rio Grande Guardian of his concerns about emerging leaders in McAllen not knowing enough about the maquiladora industry in Reynosa.

Patridge said because of the fear of cartel-related violence in Reynosa, which blew up around 2005, some McAllen leaders were afraid to visit their neighboring city in Mexico. As a result they were not visiting Reynosa’s state-of-the-art manufacturing plants.

Not seeing the plants first hand could weaken an appreciation of them and how McAllen benefits from them, Patridge feared.

Over the years, McAllen EDC has helped bring many dozens of maquiladora companies to Reynosa. And, according to a study by the Federal Reserve bank of Dallas, McAllen benefits more from the maquiladora industry than any other border city.

McAllen City Commissioner Pepe Cabeza de Vaca

McAllen City Commissioner Pepe Cabeza de Vaca agrees with Patridge’s analysis that the maquila plants need to be toured in person to be truly appreciated. So, he recently participated in a tour of a couple of maquila plants in Reynosa. The trip was organized by McAllen EDC.

“The maquila industry is growing so fast. The way they are expanding and doing the architectural designs of their plants is unbelievable. It is state-of-the-art. Now, they are doing a lot of interior design and exterior design based on millennials,” Cabeza de Vaca said.

“A lot of those stress relievers, the gardens and open spaces, they (the workers) are working in a different environment. You can take your laptop to a different place and work in a different atmosphere. It works. It was very impressive.”

Cabeza de Vaca said Alpine, one of the maquila plants visited, had started out with just a few workers and now employs thousands.

“Our community needs to understand how important the maquiladora industry is, how important it is to the United States. They are the makers of key components for a lot of the industries in the United States, including medical and automotive,” Cabeza de Vaca said.

“A lot of the parts that are in our cars are made in Reynosa, Mexico. In order for our companies to function correctly, their companies have to function correctly. If there is a lack of production in Mexico, there is a lack of production in the United States. Everything is tied together. We need their components to finish our products over here. They grow, we grow.”

Cabeza de Vaca said as soon as he got back from the Reynosa trip he told his fellow city commissioners they had to go on the next one.

“I came back and talked to my fellow commissioners. I said, you guys have to go. You guys really have to go. And I would go again with the rest of the commissioners. They need to experience it and see what is going on. For us to make the best decisions we have to know how everything works.”

Besides, Cabeza de Vaca said of Reynosa, “we are more than neighbors, we are family.”

McAllen EDC President Keith Patridge

At a recent MEDC board meeting, Patridge, the group’s president, spoke about the recent visit to the maquilas.

“Unfortunately, due to other demands and things we weren’t able to get that many of the commissioners go with us. We did have Commissioner Cabeza de Vaca. We did have representatives from STC and UTRGV. We were able to visit two companies. One was Alps Electronics or Alps Alpine Electronics. The other was Nidec,” Patridge reported.

STC is the abbreviation for South Texas College. UTRGV is the abbreviation for the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

Patridge told his board that the Covid-19 pandemic had hastened the arrival of robots in Reynosa maquila plants.

“We have seen a very quick movement to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. We were greeted as we went into one of the plants by this automated cart that was taking parts from one part of the plant to another part,” Patridge said.

“And when we went through the process they also showed us that the whole plant is being controlled by artificial intelligence. Their equipment is learning every day and it is learning how to control the process in the plant.”

As a result of automation there are far fewer defects on the production line, Patridge explained.

“They are moving towards literally zero defects. They are now down to 20… this is not customer-based defects. These are defects off of the (production) line. Literally, they have 20 defects per million of the products they are producing and they are trying to get down to zero. This is all being led by automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.”

Rapid growth is happening at Nidec, Patridge reported to his board of directors.

“They are already planning how to do their strategic plan and they are buying land for the next five to ten years. They have already purchased the land and they know that in 2024 they are having this expansion, and 2026 that expansion and then again in 2028. We are seeing this more and more.”

Patridge said MEDC is also see a movement towards research and development in the maquila plants. “The (Nidec) plant looks likes something out of Silicon Valley. It is very modern. Lots of glass. Lots of interactions in the facility. That is the direction we are seeing.”

Patridge said it is important MEDC organizes more such trips.

“I think it is important that we have the opportunity. I want to do this more for the board members, to really take them over so you start seeing what is actually happening over there and where they are at,” Patridge said.

“I think for the educational partners that were with us… they saw that the educational institutions are behind where the companies are (technology-wise), and that is not a good thing because we have to be ahead of them or we are not going to have what (the workers) they (the manufacturers) are looking for.”

Patridge said fears about violence in Reynosa have subsided and that one of MEDC’s vice presidents, Ralph Garcia, goes to the city regularly on business.

“I know a lot of people are still afraid but literally, Ralph is over there more than I am, but we are over there regularly, and it is just like it used to be, quite normal. There are still things that go on, we know that, but most of the time it is late at night. I want to continue to look at bringing more people and taking more people back into the plants.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story and the images in the slide show have been provided courtesy of McAllen Economic Development Corporation.