Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

MEXICO: South Koreans a Growing Presence in Capital’s Retail District

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 20 2003 (IPS) - The South Korean immigrant population is growing rapidly in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Tepito, a commercial centre where small shops are intermingled with big department stores, legal businesses with illegal.

In Tepito, located within the capital’s historic centre, there are long stretches of crowded, noisy, narrow streets, lined on both sides by all sorts of shops. One can buy just about anything, ranging from vehicles to drugs to high-tech weapons, as well as all imaginable merchandise – which can be legal, but also pirated, smuggled or stolen.

According to the National Institute of Migration, of the 15,000 South Koreans residing in Mexico, some 8,000 live in the capital, and most of them in Tepito.

The district is also known as "barrio bravo" (wild neighbourhood) for its high crime rates.

Some 1.3 million people visit Tepito each week and buy goods worth more than four million dollars, of which 30 percent represents purchases made from South Korean merchants, sources from the Cuauhtémoc Delegation, the municipal department home to Tepito, told IPS.

Today, the value of annual exports from South Korea to Mexico reaches 3.6 billion dollars, an astounding 3.3 billion more than in 1989.

One portion of the Korean-made products is sold in luxury shops and the other mostly in Tepito. "Barrio bravo" retailers in recent years have transformed the district into a place where legal goods are intermingled with smuggled and pirated merchandise.

Mexican-South Korean bilateral trade is going well, and the growing wave of South Koreans moving to the Latin American country is part of that phenomenon, commented Seoul’s ambassador to Mexico, Kang Wung-Sik.

But there are also cases of illegal activities, and that is regrettable, said the diplomat.

Mexican police arrested 43 South Koreans in Tepito and surrounding areas in December, on charges of smuggling, bribery and falsification of immigration documents. After the arrests, a judge instructed that 15 be held legally as prisoners.

Wung-Sik saw the arrests as violations of the rights of his fellow South Koreans and called on the Vicente Fox government to provide an explanation. After receiving the official response, he did not withdraw his complaint.

South Korean families now are scared of walking down the street in the Mexican capital because they think they might be falsely accused of crimes, Yung Burm-Choi, president of the Korean Association of Mexico, told IPS.

In Mexico City’s so-called "Zona Rosa", a centrally located area with numerous bars, cafeterias and hotels, Kim Yi Young, owner of a Korean restaurant, comments that Mexico is a good place to work, but she laments that some among her compatriots are involved in crime.

"Ask someone else." "I can’t talk about that." "I don’t speak Spanish." These were some of the responses from Korean shop-owners in Tepito when IPS asked about the origins of their merchandise.

The local police say that a Korean mafia protects or extorts the Tepito business owners from that country, but when IPS queried them, the responses were similar to those given for the merchandise question.

According to municipal authorities, Asians own 300 of the estimated 700 warehouses in Tepito used for storage, distribution and wholesale transactions of goods such as electric appliances, toys, clothing and imitation jewellery.

South Korean immigration to Mexico has been on the rise since the late 1990s, when the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) signed a series of trade accords with Seoul.

In Tepito and other central areas of the Mexican capital there are more and more Korean-owned businesses, tending to specialise in textile and electronic products.

Kim Gun-Young, director of the Korean Commerce Centre, says that the South Korean families arriving in Mexico come carrying 100,000 to a million dollars each.

And the flow of immigrants is buoyed by Mexico’s proximity to the United States and the partnership those two countries have with Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

A South Korean entrepreneur might see Mexico as a platform for trade, says Gun-Young.

Those who have more money and business experience might end up as executives at the maquiladoras (factories producing for-export goods in tax-free zones) or in offices representing South Korean corporations in Mexico.

"But the Koreans are also taking over the small business slot, like they have in Argentina and Brazil," says Alfredo Romero, researcher with the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) and expert on Asian migration.

Like other immigrant communities, they live concentrated in certain areas, where they reproduce their home country’s lifestyle and maintain strong family ties, he told IPS. They also maintain isolation from the broader community

Herver Hurtado, director of intelligence for the Federal Crime Prevention Police says that when their shops are robbed, the South Korean owners do not usually report it to the authorities. Hurtado believes this is for fear that police will discover that much of their merchandise is pirated or was smuggled into the country.

He said the police are aware of groups of South Koreans involved in criminal activities, including weapons trafficking and extortion of business owners, including their fellow Koreans.

"Everybody knows that (some South Koreans) bring in arms and drugs to sell in Tepito," Guadalupe Gómez, president of the Mexico City Merchants Association, said in comments to IPS.

"Of course most Koreans are honest, hard-working people," she said, "but we are also seeing many of them arrive with a lot of cash and pirated or contraband goods."

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