MCALLEN, Texas – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling was praised at national meeting of Index, the maquiladora trade association, in Mexico City for “standing up to President Trump.”

At a McAllen Economic Development Corporation board meeting on Thursday, Index Reynosa President Enrique Castro said he offered the congratulatory remarks at the Mexico City event.

“I wanted to congratulate Mayor Darling. During President Trump’s visit to McAllen last week, when they were talking about the wall, he was the only one to stand up and say, hey, our community thinks differently,” Castro said.

Darling was in high-demand during the president’s visit to the Texas-Mexico border region. On CNN, ITV and other news outlets from around the world, Darling challenged the notion that the border region was plagued by violence and in a state of crisis.

Enrique Castro

Interviewed after the MEDC board meeting, Castro said: “In a true democracy, people can speak very politely and with respect on what the thoughts of their community are. Mayor Darling demonstrated, even as a mayor, which is minor compared to a president, that there are ways other than a border wall to get protection.”

Castro recalled the time he told then-Homeland Security Security Michael Chertoff that the best shield at the border is the maquiladora industry. “I told him, we have a lot of trucks and cars crossing the border every day. They can tell you what to watch out for. They are going to protect themselves. I prefer a living wall. I prefer minds rather than bricks.”

Castro was not the only leader from Reynosa to publicly praise Mayor Darling this week. At a breakfast event held at the McAllen Country Club and hosted by Tamaulipas tourism officials, Francisco Galvan, Tamaulipas’ international trade director in the Rio Grande Valley said:

“The integrity of the mayor’s speech, and independently, the speech by the mayor of Reynosa, Maki Ortiz, they pronounced in support of both municipalities, McAllen and Reynosa, that we are not only neighbors, that we are also partners and we are also family. We appreciate your interiority, your courage, Mayor Darling, to pronounce in favor of Mexico and Reynosa.”

Interviewed after the breakfast event, Darling said it made a “nice change” to discuss “all the positive things” that happen on the border. 

“It was kind of refreshing to be here. The border region is much more complicated than many people portray it. The two questions I get asked in interviews are: ‘Are you for or against a wall?’ and ‘Is there a crisis on the border?’ It is a shame we are all so polarized that it comes down to are you for or against a wall,” Darling said.

“I am for border security. Sometimes that means a wall and sometimes it doesn’t. We have to listen to Border Patrol, local government, environmentalists. When you live down on the border, you realize it is so much more than a wall or no wall. Border security is a doable thing if we sit down and talk about it in a rational way.”

Darling pointed out that President Trump is not the first national figure to come down to the border and not engage with local leaders.

“We have Democrats come down here and they go to the detention center. We have Republicans come down here and they want to go on Border Patrol’s river boats. They don’t talk to each other and they don’t talk to local officials either,” Darling said.

Open For Business

Tamaulipas Tourism Secretary Fernando Olivera Rocha gave the opening remarks at the breakfast event, which was attended by tourist leaders and elected officials from cities such as Mier, Victoria, Miguel Aleman, Altamira, and Rio Bravo. 

Olivera repeated a phrase said many times by Tamaulipas Governor Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca: that Tamaulipas is open for business.

“It is not is no secret we have been tremendously challenged these past few years with security. But, we have been creating a new strategy and a successful strategy in terms of how we work on security,” Olivera said.

“We are confident we can work together in terms of doing business. Our governor says we are open for business. We want to work with you on economics, bringing people to our state and bringing tourist investment.”

Olivera pointed out that Tamaulipas is a large state, with a 400 kilometers border with Texas, and 400 kilometers of coastline.

“It is one of the first questions we asked, how secure are you. We are not hiding anything. It is definite challenge and we are working on it. We are having great success. We are ranked eighth among the 32 states in Mexico for direct foreign investment. People are trusting in Tamaulipas, they are coming back to visit, coming back to invest, to take the opportunity to work in Tamaulipas.”

In fact, Olivera said, Tamaulipas had more than one million visitors from Texas in 15 days during the Christmas holding period. “Look around our big state and see how we can work together. We see the border as one region, as an opportunity to put together our assets and go out into this huge world and tell everyone that this is a region that you have to visit.”

Olivera announced that within the next year a new convention center would be built in Reynosa.

“We are going to bring conventions, we are going to bring exhibitions, we are going to sell McAllen because this is an opportunity to bring people into the border of Mexico. When the Mexican people come to a convention, they will want to come here to McAllen also, to go shopping. They will want to look around McAllen and the other (Valley) cities,” Olivera said.

“We want to work together and promote together. At different trade shows we should sell the region as one destination,” Olivera added.

A Chamber of Commerce perspective

Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, also spoke at the breakfast event. He said he paid close attention to “disruptors” in an industry and said negative rhetoric about the border was an example of this.

“Tourism is important for McAllen and Tamaulipas. What we are seeing now is the disruptors in terms of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C., and other places.  That rhetoric is different from what we want to see for our region. We have to recognize it does have an impact on how people perceive not only South Texas but also Tamaulipas. So the challenge is, can we create our own future for this region.”

Ahlenius said the “old business model” of relying on Washington, D.C., or Mexico City to help the border region “is not going to work” in the 21st Century. “How we build towards the future is going to be critical, and what we are able to produce in terms of a win-win for everybody is going to be critical for both our communities,” he said.

Speaking to the tourism leaders and elected officials from Tamaulipas, Ahlenius added: “You have a friend and ally, not only in McAllen but also South Texas. We look forward to whatever opportunities we can produce that are really going to drive economic opportunities for McAllen and the state of Tamaulipas.”

In his remarks at the breakfast event, Mayor Darling said Texas was “very fortunate” to work with a governor in Tamaulipas, who, when opening the local newspaper, wanted to read how the McAllen Memorial Mustang team has done. Darling was referencing the fact that Garcia Cabeza de Vaca was born and went to school in McAllen.

Darling also praised the mayor of Reynosa. “Maki has her challenges but she faces them with a smile, that today is going to be a better day than yesterday.”

Darling noted that for the last 35 years or so, McAllen economic development leaders had put “100 percent effort” into attracting new business to Reynosa. “I have been to Korea and Japan and we are over there selling Reynosa just as hard as McAllen. In fact, the trip I went on, we had the state of Tamaulipas and Reynosa represented, we were promoting international economic development to the world.”

Darling acknowledged that security has been “our biggest issue” when it comes to working with Tamaulipas.

“We have friends, neighbors. It is not just business and shoppers, we have friends and neighbors there. We miss going to Reynosa for a great meal, a couple of margaritas, mariachis, shopping on Saturday. We have nearly a whole generation of our kids who have never experienced that. We need to rekindle that,” Darling said.

“When we try to get tourists here, a big selling point is ‘A Day in Mexico.’ It is something different that no one in Texas can offer except those that live on the border. That is so important to us. At the end of the day it is the relationship that is hurt because these are difficult times.”

Darling also briefly touched on the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the U.S., it is known as USMCA. Darling said it was “silly” to say that through this new agreement, Mexico would be made to pay for a border wall.

“USMCA is huge for the border. It is silly to let certain rhetoric get in the middle of such a great relationship with our most important neighbor. For me, the most important foreign relations in the world is Mexico. We ought to pay more attention to our hemisphere than we do other hemispheres.”

Darling concluded his remarks by saying: “We understand more than anybody the importance of Mexico. We understand the challenges of a border more than anybody else. We are going to overcome all this and come out stronger than before. We have confidence in the governor and the mayor and the president to do it.”

Editor’s Note: The audio from the Tamaulipas-McAllen tourism event was recorded by Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports.