By Ian Parker
Since 1843, the U.S. Consulate General in Mérida has promoted trade and protected American citizens in the Yucatán Peninsula, an area in southeast Mexico with 700 miles of coastline. American consuls have pursued archaeological research, rescued shipwrecked sailors, and strengthened commercial links across the Atlantic Ocean. Its officers, local staff, and consular agents work 24/7 annually to ensure the safety of millions of tourists visiting resorts in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel. More recently, the region has had to adjust to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, as minimal occupancies are enforced at resorts, and tourists are compelled to return home to weather the crisis. Despite those challenges, Yucatán, and Mérida in particular, will continue to provide an encouraging vision for Mexico’s future: a strong regional partner with robust people-to-people ties and opportunities for U.S. investment.
ConGen Mérida plays a critically important role in protecting U.S. citizens, both residents and visitors, in Mexico. In 2019, more than 9 million American citizens visited the Yucatán Peninsula, and this number does not include the nearly 13,000 U.S. citizen residents who live in the consular district. The number of visitors has steadily increased every year, particularly in cruise ship arrivals to Cozumel. With more U.S. visitors, there is greater demand for emergency services. In 2019, Mérida became the second-busiest post worldwide for special consular services, which includes non-routine services such as welfare and whereabouts visits and victim assistance. The consulate and its consular agencies on the coast handled more than 3,000 cases last year, a 23 percent increase over the prior year.
“We are small but mighty,” said Consular Chief Caroline Amberger. “Our teams really support each other to succeed in a dynamic and often challenging environment.”
Situated atop the Maya city of T’hó, Mérida is one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the Americas. The city—much like the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula—offers visitors a rich history and culture to explore. For more than a thousand years, the Maya and other Amerindian peoples built remarkable architectural sites, such as Chichén Itzá, across the Yucatán Peninsula’s coastal wetlands, semi arid plains, and limestone hills. By the end of the mid-13th century, the great cities had been abandoned due to drought, overpopulation, or conflict.
In the 1540s, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo founded the cities of Campeche and Mérida. Explorers built a new world from the stones of the past. As a new Hispanic society emerged, indigenous uprisings challenged colonial rule. And the Maya endured: today, approximately 790,000 residents speak a Mayan language. Cotton hammocks and culinary delights such as cochinita pibil, braised pork cooked in banana leaves, highlight the ongoing vitality of their traditions and importance to the region’s identity along with Hispanic migrants and new residents from abroad.
Historically, the sea was Yucatán’s main conduit to the outside world—trade with the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean was more accessible, and more profitable than with Mexican states.
“Until 1898, just to visit the capital of the country, one had to travel by ferry from the Gulf port of Progreso to New Orleans or Havana, and then back to Veracruz and by train to Mexico City,” said Jorge G. Castañeda in his popular history book written in 2012, “Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans.”
Such ties forged trans-Atlantic links. Mérida soon became a world center for exporting henequen, fibers of the agave cactus critical to global manufacturing before the advent of nylon. By the 1950s, rails and roads linked Yucatán to Mexico, followed by airports. Today, Mérida remains the peninsula’s cultural, economic, and educational capital. In addition to the many Mayan-speaking residents, there are also families of Spanish, Korean, and Lebanese heritage.
The economy of the peninsula’s three states—Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo—relies on commerce, tourism, real estate, construction, and oil. While Campeche is a center for petrochemical industries and fisheries, tourism dominates the beaches along the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo. In 2018, more than 18 million visitors visited beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum.
Tourism is increasingly vital to Yucatán’s economy. But there is more to the story than Caribbean beaches. For instance, Mérida has one of the largest historic districts in the Americas. Visitors can walk to the 16th century cathedral and henequen mansions along the Paris-inspired Paseo de Montejo. The city, twice named an American Capital of Culture, celebrates its diversity through cultural events and festivals—from the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra to Hanal Pixan, the Maya celebration of Day of the Dead. Mérida’s status as one of the safest cities in the Americas is one reason it has become a magnet for investment and retirement.
Tourists flock to the famous Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, and the beach towns of Progreso and Chuburna are a short drive from town. Locals beat the heat at cenotes—natural pools, often underground caves—traditionally used for collecting drinking water and making sacrificial offerings. The largest flamingo population in North America lives nearby at Rio Lagartos.
Beyond tourism, the Yucatán is experiencing a boom in foreign direct investment in finance, manufacturing industries, and food services. In 2019, foreign direct investment in Yucatán increased by more than 100 percent over the same period last year, to $117 million. The United States is the primary investor, followed by Spain and Canada. Maquiladoras, plants that manufacture goods for export abroad, have leveraged the peninsula’s strategic location. More than a dozen American maquilas in Yucatán employ thousands of workers and produce everything from aerospace parts to diamond rings. Investments in renewable energy projects, including wind farms, solar, and natural gas, reflect aspirations for the region to become a model for sustainability. In 2019, the Dzilam Bravo Wind Farm near Mérida began producing 270 gigawatts—enough to power 170,000 households.
Despite these hopeful trends, economic inequality and violence against women remain challenges to overcome. American investment is still lower, relatively, in the peninsula than in the northern Mexican areas closer to the border. While homicide rates in the state of Yucatán are the lowest in Mexico, violence in tourist hotspots like Cancun has risen, and the court system struggles to deliver justice. Embassy Mexico City and ConGen Mérida work hand-in-hand to address these challenges and enhance the bilateral relationship.
Since the arrival of Consul General Charles Thompson Jr. in March 1843, the United States has maintained a steady presence supporting American citizens and economic cooperation in Mérida and throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. Today, ConGen Mérida engages 57 officers and locally employed staff of the Department of State and Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as seven staff at consular agencies in Cancun and Playa del Carmen and one consular agent in Cozumel.
“Mexico is one of the United States’ closest and most valued partners,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau. “Our countries are neighbors and partners, strengthened by common values, strong trade linkages, and shared cultural ties. As one of nine U.S. consulates in Mexico, our team in Mérida is crucial to building strong ties with state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society in southeast Mexico.”
In addition to Mérida’s American Citizen Services caseload, the consulate processes approximately 45,000 non-immigrant visas and supports economic relationships, security and justice assistance, and public diplomacy programs.
In December 2018, the U.S. and Mexico signed a “Declaration of Principles on Economic Development and Cooperation in Southern Mexico and Central America” to spur economic development and opportunities for U.S. investment, including through $2 billion of financing from the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) for southern Mexico. Because half of the southern states fall within Mérida’s consular district, the consulate has facilitated DFC visits, hosted foreign commercial service-organized American business delegations, and collaborated with the Department of Energy to promote renewable energy in the peninsula. Public affairs programs support entrepreneurship training and exchanges, particularly with female and Maya entrepreneurs.
“Our vibrant entrepreneurship programs have positioned the United States as the partner of choice in the region for business development and commercial ties,” says Principal Officer Courtney Beale.
The 2008 Mérida Initiative bolstered cooperation between the Mexican government and U.S. agencies to address crime and corruption. For instance, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) works with a wide variety of security and justice sector partners in all three states of the Yucatán Peninsula and is making a real impact on the fight against organized crime. Quintana Roo’s anti-corruption prosecutor recently attributed her agency’s successful recovery of more than 200 million pesos connected to abuse of authority, bribery, fraud, and extortion to INL training and technical assistance. Mérida is also home to an all-female championship team from Universidad Marista that won an INL-sponsored national mock trial competition for law students in 2018.
For a neighboring region that is banking its future on tourism and foreign investment, English is a key skill for the 21st century workforce. ConGen Mérida has partnered with local government and academic institutions to improve English teaching and expand access to English classes. The Yucatán Education Department hosts a Department-sponsored English Teaching Fellow to design English curriculum and train teachers in public schools throughout the state. The public affairs section hosts almost 20 Fulbright English teaching assistants to work with universities in all three states. And the consulate implements the Department’s flagship English Access programs for high school and university students that would not otherwise have the means for quality English language learning.
Millions of Americans “meet” their southern neighbor through a trip to the Cancun area every year. The team at the U.S. Consulate General in Mérida is there to assist travelers, while also fostering people-to-people ties in this dynamic region. They will continue to protect U.S. citizen tourists who visit Maya sites or Caribbean beaches, as well as those who call the Yucatán home. Since 1843, ConGen Mérida had sustained partnerships between Mexico’s government and people and the United States. While it may be small in size, it will continue to play a large role in support of a more secure and prosperous future.
Ian Parker is a consular officer at ConGen Mérida.