Above: A nighttime view of Matamoros’ new consulate building. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations
By Moises D. Mendoza
For Alexander Raley, project director for Matamoros’ new consulate general, the weeks leading up to the opening of post’s new building were abuzz with constant activity. There have been continual building, security and fire inspections; nonstop visits; and a constant flow of post managers striving to make sure that everything is just right.
Every detail counts in Consulate General Matamoros’ new $175 million building that the Department of State officially dedicated on May 15, after just three years of design and construction. That includes ensuring that all the directional signs have accurate Spanish-language translations and finishing touches, such as polishing and shining the mesquite-wood floor.
“It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but it’s a real feeling of accomplishment, not just for our team but for the entire Department of State,” Raley said recently while showing the building’s architectural features to several visitors.
The 7,000-square-meter building, designed by the richärd+bauer architecture firm and constructed by contractor B.L. Harbert, is on the leading edge of modern design. The Department sought a design that would meet important security requirements, accommodate consular visitors and include environmentally friendly features for operational cost savings. Some examples of its innovations include a garden growing on the roof, landscaping that helps prevent flooding by absorbing rainwater and a water treatment plant which converts untreated wastewater into the water used for irrigating the gardens which cover the 7.6-acre compound. There are also locally inspired touches, like pebble-stone pathways and a shade canopy that mimics regional architecture known as latilla, which give a sense of openness to the new facility and reduces solar gain.
But more than being a sustainable, state-of-the-art facility that offers visitors new creature comforts, Matamoros’ new consulate building symbolizes the U.S. government’s enduring commitment to Matamoros, the state of Tamaulipas and Mexico. Department officials and local leaders say that this is especially important at a time of great change in the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship.
“Our move to this new consulate is not only a symbol of the engagement between the United States and Mexico but also signifies how our team will be able to carry out our first priority, helping and protecting American citizens,” said Consul General Neda Brown during the May 15 dedication ceremony.
Guests at the dedication ceremony in Matamoros included more than 100 local community leaders as well as Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Director Addison “Tad” Davis IV, Chargé d’Affaires John Creamer, Minister Counselor for Consular and Consulate Affairs Donald Heflin, Governor of the State of Tamaulipas Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca, Matamoros’ Mayor Mario Alberto López Hernández and other U.S. and Mexico mayors from Matamoros’ consular district.
Matamoros’ old consulate compound—a residential complex turned into a makeshift office space and consular section that first opened in 1962—had long been showing its age. For the U.S. government, a new consulate is a way to increase efficiency and publicly demonstrate its commitment to this important and growing region. Indeed, more than $5 billion in back and forth trade takes place each year between the Matamoros and Brownsville ports of entry alone, according to U.S. and Mexican government statistics. The United States also has pivotal security interests in Tamaulipas—a state that has recently become well-known for its challenges with transnational criminal groups.
Matamoros has always played an important, if sometimes little-known role, in the United States government’s extensive network of Mexican consulates that today has grown to nine, in addition to the Embassy in Mexico City. Matamoros is the oldest consulate in all of Mexico still in operation and, having been founded in 1825, is among the oldest in the world.
When the consulate was first opened, municipal archival records show that Matamoros was still a sleepy little town of about 1,500 residents. But its strategic location on Mexico’s Gulf Coast made it of interest to merchants. Before long, Matamoros was a growing center of commerce.
“It was all about trade,” says Omar Valerio-Jiménez, a history professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the Rio Grande Valley, explaining that Matamoros soon became an important port city, with many ships calling from New Orleans.
According to early consular dispatches, the first consuls in Matamoros performed a range of functions. They mediated disputes between American merchants and Mexican authorities, verified registries of American ships coming into port and helped finalize the estates of American citizens who died in the area. But they also dodged bullets working amid unrelenting violence. Through much of the 1800s and into the early 20th century, Matamoros was the center of wave after wave of Mexican revolutionary combat, which often affected U.S. consular operations. A consul general was even shot in the cheek during street combat in 1851.
The 20th and 21st centuries brought new challenges for operations, such as increased visa operations in 1940 when the U.S. Government imposed visa and passport requirements on Mexican citizens for travel to the United States. And more recently beginning in 2010, a wave of extreme violence hit the area as transnational criminal organizations engaged in territorial battles. Today, challenging security conditions limit personnel to a small area around the consulate and the land ports of entry leading into Brownsville, Texas.
With a burgeoning population of 500,000, however, Matamoros today plays an important role in U.S. policy toward Mexico. The post covers a broad swathe of the state of Tamaulipas—from Reynosa in the North, to well past the state capital of Ciudad Victoria in the South. The consulate has 119 employees representing the Department, Marine Security Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Consular work is both challenging and exciting in Matamoros. As a major epicenter of migration and birth certificate fraud, officers deal with some of the most complex passport and citizenship cases in the world. The Political/Economic and Public Diplomacy sections are similarly exciting, spearheading a broad range of cultural and educational programs and supporting the rule of law in Mexico.
With Matamoros’ new consulate, American diplomats can expect changes geared towards a bright future. For starters, there will be things to get used to, like the security regulations enforced by eight Marine Security Guards who are providing round-the-clock security for the consulate, for the first time in its history. U.S. officials will also have the opportunity to do things they could never do before in the prior consulate’s outdated and cramped facilities.
“Our new building will improve the experience of both U.S. citizens and applicants who apply for visas in the consulate. It will also allow us to improve our diplomatic and community engagement with the state government,” Consul General Neda Brown said.
And, indeed, while American officials may see this as a new era for American diplomacy in northeastern Mexico, local leaders see the new consulate as a source of pride and opportunity for all of Matamoros.
“We hope to have new exciting economic opportunities, and a closer relationship to the United States,” said Julian Garza, the municipal economics secretary.
Andres Cuellar, a historian who runs the local municipal archives, noted, “The U.S. Consulate has always been a part of the richness of Matamoros. It will remain that way for years to come.”
Moises D. Mendoza was a consular officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Matamoros.