Mexican border city makes money from junked American cars

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- In this gritty border city, car hoods fence yards, tires are used to build staircases and teetering mountains of crumpled LeBarons, Pintos and Dakotas -- many with Texas license plates -- rise from the desert.

Abandoned cars left on streets and piled in yards have turned Ciudad Juarez into a sprawling automotive graveyard, and the city wants to turn those eyesores into a profit.

Junk dealers started a campaign Tuesday to clear the streets and try to make the city into a center for steel.

For years, smugglers have brought in the cheapest running vehicles they could find from the Texas side of the border. There are few checks in Mexico on U.S.-registered cars until drivers pass checkpoints 12 miles past the frontier -- something most in Ciudad Juarez, right on the border, don't have to do.

It's often cheaper to buy a car here than to fix one.

The junkyard owners' union estimates 500,000 abandoned cars litter city streets -- enough to reach almost to Chicago if parked bumper to rusting bumper. An additional 1.5 million pack junkyards.

With companies on both sides of the border ready to buy the scrap metal, the union says it expects to tow 100 cars a day.

"We have enough junked cars to become a center for steel," said Hector Lozoya, president of the association of junkyard owners, known as Yonkeros.

Even the term "yonke" is a cross-border import. In Spanish, it's often pronounced a lot like "junk-ay."

Many of the cars are untaxed, dirt-cheap U.S. vehicles without plates that are technically illegal on both sides of the border.

While 20 percent of the project's earnings will go to city beautification, the plan also offers an economic opportunity for residents hit hard by the U.S. downturn after Sept. 11. More than 80,000 factory workers have lost their jobs.

Yonkeros will pay $30 to $100 for the old cars, depending on their condition. In turn, yonkeros hope to sell enough scrap metal to equal several thousand tons of steel a month.

Wearing a diamond ring, gold bracelet and ostrich-skin boots, Lozoya declined to say how much yonkeros earn. But he said business has been good.

"The good thing about this business," he said, "is that the merchandise never goes bad."