Reagan to Be in Mexicali Friday : Excited Town Spruces Up for Meeting of Presidents

Times Staff Writer

On Lopez Mateos Boulevard, workers were busy hosing down dust-covered monuments. On Constitution Street, they were pruning long-neglected palm trees and hanging bunting in the national colors of the United States and Mexico. And, at the modern government center, tight-lipped soldiers with automatic weapons kept the curious away. Even the mayor, it was said, needed a special identification tag to go to work this week.

Throughout this border city, intense preparations were under way for Friday's meeting of President Reagan and Mexico's President Miguel de la Madrid. Officials said it was the biggest thing ever to happen in this bustling desert city of about 750,000 people 120 miles east of San Diego.

It is such an important occasion, in fact, that the sale of liquor has been banned for 24 hours beginning at 6 p.m. today--something almost unthinkable in any Mexican border town, where the sale of cheap liquor to Americans is a major industry.

"We're doing all this for el senor presidente, " said a smiling Julian Espinoza, who headed a crew of four city workers cutting dead fronds from palm trees along a major thoroughfare.

The meeting has generated a wave of civic pride in Mexicali, for, even though it is the capital of the state of Baja California, it has the reputation of being a sleepy, dusty border town greatly overshadowed by Tijuana, the state's most populous and most vibrant city. The people of Mexicali, like the people of other Mexican border towns, often feel isolated and neglected by the bureaucrats in faraway Mexico City.

"People here feel very proud about the visit," said Fatima Lomas Lau, the city's director of planning and architecture. "Mexicali is very far from the center of the republic, and often people in Mexico City don't even know where we are. They think we're in the United States. In a way, it's a recognition that we are a part of Mexico."

Low-Key Meeting

Despite the hoopla, U.S. and Mexican officials say the meeting will be low-key. No major breakthroughs are expected.

"We're not expecting any big announcements," a U.S. official in the advance party said. "Our main purpose is to keep the bureaucracies functioning, keep the lines open."

A dominant theme is expected to be Mexico's faltering economy, which has been buffeted by a $96-billion foreign debt, 60% inflation and a slumping world market for oil, Mexico's principal source of foreign income.

Environmental issues are also expected to come up, including the pollution of San Diego beaches by Tijuana's sewers. Air pollution has been a problem in the area near Douglas, Ariz., where there are smelters on both sides of the border.

Drugs May Be Topic

Officials expect some discussion of Mexico's efforts to curb the flow of illicit drugs into the United States, although Mexican and U.S. officials recently discussed that issue at a meeting in San Antonio. In addition, there may be some talk about an ongoing dispute over fishing rights off the Mexican coast and about illegal immigration of Mexican nationals into the United States.

The Mexicali meeting is part of a general plan to have the two presidents meet at least once a year, although no session could be arranged in 1985 because of what were described as scheduling problems. The meeting is the first since the two leaders met in Washington in May, 1984, and the third since De la Madrid's inauguration in December, 1982. The two met in La Paz, in Baja California, in August, 1983. The Mexicali meeting will be the 35th between the presidents of the two countries since 1909.

In Mexicali, though, it is being treated as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Preparations were most intense at the government complex, which houses state and municipal offices. Hundreds of government workers have been given the week off, and access is being controlled by scores of soldiers and policemen. City Hall is being prepared for use as a press center. The two leaders will meet at the state office building.

Helicopters Practice

On Tuesday, minor dust storms obscured the entire complex, as U.S. security officials practiced landing helicopters in a nearby parking lot.

Reagan, who has been vacationing in Palm Springs, Calif., is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. Friday by helicopter from the Naval Air Facility near El Centro, Calif. De la Madrid is to arrive tonight from Mexico City.

If they have time to notice, the leaders will find a sprawling city festooned with bunting and banners. Trimmed trees, cleaned streets and new coats of paint will replace the usually dusty, dreary cityscape.

They will also find a city that, like other Mexican border communities, is experiencing rapid population growth fueled largely by migrants from the interior seeking jobs along the border or in the United States.

Between 1970 and 1980, Mexicali's population grew by almost 50%, compared to a national growth rate of about 33%, according to Mexican census figures--and these are thought to be low. All along the border, such rapid growth has put a strain on the ability of Mexican municipalities to provide basic services such as water and electricity.

In Fertile Valley

It was once said that cotton was king in Mexicali, which is situated in the center of the fertile Mexicali Valley, one of northern Mexico's primary farming areas. The community was founded as a farming center in the early 20th Century, and many Chinese laborers were brought in to work the fields. The city still has a large Mexican-Chinese community and dozens of Chinese restaurants.

In recent years, vegetables and grains have overtaken cotton as the leading crops. Farm products are exported to the United States.

Mexicali has also become a center of maquiladoras, mostly U.S.-owned manufacturing firms that have set up shop along the border to take advantage of lower-paid Mexican labor. There are more than 80 such plants.

Just across the border is Calexico, Calif., an Imperial Valley farming center with a population of about 16,000. Calexico is usually teeming with Mexican shoppers, although devaluation of Mexico's currency in 1976 and 1982 severely depressed the town's economy because many Mexicans could no longer afford to buy U.S. goods.

Calexico Disappointed

In Calexico this week, there is some chagrin that Reagan will be merely flying over on his way to Mexicali.

"There are quite a few disappointed people," Fred Knechel, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce, told a reporter. "We might put up a banner or something, but I don't think he'll see it."

In Mexicali, there is a palpable sense of expectation, although it is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the holiday atmosphere will be short-lived.

At a monument to the revolutionary hero Vicente Guerrero, Maria de Jesus Pimentel watched one day this week as firemen hosed down a statue and plaza near the downtown area while laborers with brooms struggled to remove accumulated grime.

"Sure, it's clean now because the presidents are coming," she said, gesturing toward the statue. "But just wait. A few days after they leave, it will be like a dump again around here."

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