Pain Of Global Downturn Persists In Mexico

WIDE: Central de Abasto in Mexico City i i

hide captionCovering more than 750 acres, the sprawling Central de Abasto in Mexico City is billed as Latin America's largest market. Shoppers and vendors here are feeling the effects of the country's economic downturn.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
WIDE: Central de Abasto in Mexico City

Covering more than 750 acres, the sprawling Central de Abasto in Mexico City is billed as Latin America's largest market. Shoppers and vendors here are feeling the effects of the country's economic downturn.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

As the U.S. appears to be pulling out of recession, Mexico's economy is shrinking at its fastest pace since the Great Depression. The effects of the downturn are being felt across the nation, in all sectors of society and in most industries.

A visit to a sprawling market in Mexico City that city officials claim is the largest in Latin America illustrates how the economic crisis is affecting vendors and shoppers.

The Central de Abasto is a huge market near the Mexico City airport. It covers more than 750 acres, making it about eight times bigger than the Mall of America outside Minneapolis.

Petra Flores de la Cruz sells celery, broccoli and lettuce at the Central de Abasto i i

hide captionPetra Flores de la Cruz sells celery, broccoli and lettuce at Central de Abasto. Before the downturn, she says, she would sell 300 boxes of celery a day. Now, that's down to just 40 or 50.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Petra Flores de la Cruz sells celery, broccoli and lettuce at the Central de Abasto

Petra Flores de la Cruz sells celery, broccoli and lettuce at Central de Abasto. Before the downturn, she says, she would sell 300 boxes of celery a day. Now, that's down to just 40 or 50.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

The complex is primarily a wholesale food and flower market, but housewives and street vendors are also more than welcome to shop.

The market's stalls offer everything from plastic plates to dish soap. There are walls of orange marigolds, pyramids of squash and bales of cilantro. Fat, shiny peppers are piled next to immaculately clean white onions. One section is devoted solely to carrots.

Petra Flores de la Cruz sells celery, broccoli and lettuce from a long wooden table. She says her situation in the economic crisis is dismal.

"Before, I used to sell 300 boxes of celery a day," she says. "Now, I move about 50 or 40 boxes. There's been a lot of change — a lot."

An herb vendor nearby says he started breaking up the thick bunches of parsley and cilantro into halves and quarters to make them more affordable. He says he never had to do that in the past.

And shoppers also say they're buying only the basics.

Lugging a canvas bag stuffed with vegetables, 67-year-old shopper Candelaria Gonzalez says she is no longer buying fish or beef.

"The price of beef has gone up to 80 pesos [$6] a kilo, and the minimum wage is only 50 pesos a day. Imagine," she says. "All you can get for the minimum wage is beans and tortillas."

The Mexican minimum wage is 55 pesos, or slightly more than $4 a day.

In a country where nearly half the population already lived below the poverty line, the global economic downturn has slashed all of Mexico's largest sources of revenue. Oil profits are in a free fall. Automotive exports declined 40 percent this year. Swine flu and Mexico's warring drug cartels have battered tourism. And cash sent home from Mexicans working in the United States is dropping at an unprecedented pace.

Alejandro Villagomez is a professor of macroeconomics at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, one of the country's top private universities. He predicts that Mexico's economy will contract 7 to 8 percent in 2009.

Villagomez says Mexico has suffered in this global crisis because of its heavy dependence on exports to the U.S. He says the slowdown has been felt nationwide, and the fallout will be, too.

"One of the main problems will be the increase in poverty. That is a very important problem for the government," Villagomez says.

Back at the Central de Abasto market, porters push huge piles of goods through the narrow alleyways on hand trucks that they call diablos, or devils. Musicians wander amid the produce trying to raise a few pesos.

In the seafood section, fish, shrimp and squid from both of Mexico's coasts lie on beds of ice.

Men wielding cleavers chop up octopuses on large wooden blocks.

Huge stainless steel trays filled with fish surround Noel Vasquez Lozano. He says sales have been going down for roughly two years now.

Vasquez says the merchants keep waiting for the next week, the next month for things to get better. But things remain the same — sales are weak.

Vasquez says the worst part is that there is no end in sight. And many economists agree with him, saying it will take Mexico several years to recover from this downturn.

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