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Karen Bell, Britain's consulate-general in Houston, thanks Luis Bazan, interim bridge director for the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. Bazan gave a video presentation on expansion plans for the bridge. Bell said Britain would like to help.

PHARR, RGV – The timing of the two events was pure coincidence but days after the Rio Grande Valley was trashed by a sleazy British tabloid, a British consulate-general visited the region to say companies from her country are keen to take advantage of its dynamic growth.

Karen Bell, Britain’s consulate-general in Houston, said she had not seen the infamous Daily Mail story prior to her visit. “Planning for my trip to the Valley began before I even arrived in Houston in July. There was absolutely no connection between the timing for my visit and the Daily Mail story,” Bell told the Rio Grande Guardian.

The down market Daily Mail ran a sensationalist story on Oct. 8 about Reynosa resembling a war zone with graphic pictures of people shot to death on the city’s streets. The story said residents of McAllen are afraid to go out at night for fear of spillover drug cartel violence. Click here to read the Daily Mail story.

The story incensed McAllen city leaders. They said the photos of dead gunmen were years old and that the story was full of inaccuracies and exaggerations. The story mistook the city of Hidalgo for McAllen and misidentified Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra.

McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge said the story could do untold damage to his group’s efforts to land Fortune 500 companies in the Valley and Reynosa. Patridge’s office has tried to reach the Daily Mail to invite the online editor of the newspaper to “come and see the real Reynosa and McAllen.” MEDC also organized a tour of Reynosa for Valley-based reporters on Monday so that they could report on how secure they feel the city is.

Consulate-General Bell had a number of engagements in the Valley on Tuesday. The Rio Grande Guardian met up with her when she toured the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. In a meeting with Pharr leaders, Bell watched a video presentation about expansion and modernization plans for the bridge, on both sides of the Rio Grande. She asked if there were any opportunities for British companies to participate.

“What a wonderful presentation,” Bell said to Luis Bazan, interim bridge director, in reference to the video and slideshow. “It is an exciting project you are continuing to build here. You have a phenomenal scale of ambition here in terms of your infrastructure plans. I would be really interested to hear how the financing of that works and whether there are opportunities for outside partners to come in.”

Bell said Britain stands ready to help. “The scale at which you are growing this particular bridge project, I think, has kind of redoubled enthusiasm for what we can and should be doing to promote U.K. participation, whether it is getting traffic across the bridge, or helping you with finance. Public-private partnerships are something which, over the years, the U.K. has developed quite an expertise in. If there is something more we could be doing in terms of the planning and development of the project as you move ahead, we would like to be involved.”

Mexico’s consul in McAllen, Guillermo Ordorica Robles was at the meeting. Bell said the U.K. is expanding its trade mission activities in its consulate in Monterrey, Mexico.

“We have been very clear for some time that we are missing opportunities at a strategic level. Many U.K. companies have headquarters in Texas, particularly in Houston. But, we obviously have representation in the Valley, which is great to hear. We think there is more we could be doing to expose them to opportunity for partnership and collaboration in Mexico. I will be leveraging some of the existing relationships that we have got here.”

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez told Bell that the Pharr enjoys a great relationship with is neighbors to the south – namely Reynosa. “At the heart of everything is collaboration and innovative ideas. You can see it here (at the bridge). It is working wonderfully,” Hernandez said.

In his remarks, Ordorica said approximately one million people cross between Mexico and the United States every day. “It is one of the most dynamic borders in the world,” he said. Ordorica also mentioned that 35 percent of Texas’ exports go to Mexico and that this business activity is worth $95 billion. If they were one country, Ordorica said, the ten U.S.-Mexico Border States would have the fourth largest economy in the world.

Asked by a reporter after the meeting if Reynosa is a safe place to live and work, Ordorica said: “Every chance I get I go to Reynosa for lunch. Nothing happens. I take my family there. I go shopping there. Nothing happens. I have never had any trouble in Reynosa so this yellow press does not help very much.”

Ordorica said one of his personal missions as consul is to “rewrite the narrative” about the security of residents who live along the border. “There are so many positive things happening here. We are achieving a lot of great things. If you look with more seriousness and put aside the isolated incidences you will see that amazing things are happening.”

Ordorica added that he has started to send positive stories about what is happening in Mexico to local business publications in order to redress the balance of coverage.

Rio Grande Valley-based news reporters visit Reynosa

On Monday morning, key players in McAllen met to discuss the Daily Mail article. In the meeting were MEDC’s Patridge, MEDC’s marketing director Olivia Tamez, Rebecca M. Olaguibel, director of retail and business development for the City of McAllen, Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, and Nancy Millar, vice president of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Reynosa has been extremely quiet of late. I do not know where this (Daily Mail story) is coming from,” Patridge said. “They are using pictures that are two or three years old. I don’t understand what brought this article on all of a sudden.”

Asked if stories such as the Daily Mail’s hurts the Valley’s chances of landing major corporations, Patridge said: “All they know is what they read and see in the paper. When we have companies that may have an interest in looking at Mexico are they striking us off the list because of what they read in the U.K. newspaper?”

Patridge said at least 2,000 maquiladora plant managers live in the greater McAllen area and commute to work in Reynosa every day. “They do not think they are going back and forth into a war zone.”

Ralph Garcia, vice president of McAllen EDC, gave Valley reporters a tour of Reynosa so they could see for themselves if the city was a war zone. “We can’t deny there are incidents but typically, those incidents are between organized crime.” Garcia said when he takes prospective clients to Reynosa he does not shelter them in any way. “We want them to know what they are letting themselves in for. The perspective they leave with is so much better.”

On the one-day tour of Reynosa, Valley reporters were shown around the industrial parks that house maquiladoras, the Parque Cultural, La Fogata restaurant, and the downtown plaza. At the plaza they by chance bumped into Reynosa Mayor José ‘Pepe’ Elias Leal. In its article, the Daily Mail claimed it had tried several times to reach Elias Leal for comment. Elias Leal told the visiting Valley reporters he had not received any requests for comment from the British paper. He said he had not seen the news article claiming his city is a war zone.

Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian about the security situation in Reynosa, Elias Leal, speaking in Spanish, said: “We are on notice and will take whatever measures are necessary to prevent certain situations. What is important is that visitors and citizens have certainty and assurance. I am concerned for the safety and security of Reynosa visitors and citizens. We assure that by keeping all communications open and reporting anything that happens. I just met with State and Federal authorities in charge of  safety and security.  We reviewed security measures. We expect that if any problems regarding safety and security exist they will be corrected. We need tourism. Like this plaza was built, we’re doing the same on Calle Hidalgo and improving ‘La Zona Rosa’ because it’s very important that our visitors to Reynosa be secure.”

The visiting Valley reporters were also given a tour of the BSN Medical maquila. The company was co-founded in 2001 by a British firm, Smith & Nephew PLC of London. Because of its British connections, BSN’s human resources manager for the plant, Marcilio de la Garza González, participated in the meeting with Consulate-General Bell at the Pharr International Bridge on Tuesday. De la Garza escorted Valley reporters around the factory on Monday.

Asked if Reynosa resembled a war zone, De la Garza said: “Of course not.” Asked if the BSN Medical plant had ever been attacked, De la Garza said: “It is a safe place to work. I always tell visitors, yes, we have violence, just like any other place. But they (the cartels or gangs) are not looking for me and they are not looking for you.” Asked if there had ever been any shakedowns, De la Garza said, “No.”

De la Garza lives in Matamoros and travels 40 miles to work twice a week, staying overnight in Reynosa a couple of times a week. He said he does this for convenience not because Highway 2 is dangerous. “You have to be careful, just like you do on any other road. But this is not a war zone. Do you see me wearing body armor and a helmet?”