Los Algodones Enjoys Medical Tourism Boom Despite U.S. Mexico Tension

Mar 2, 2017

Business is booming on the border despite increasing tension between the U.S. and Mexico over a wall and immigration policy.

One small Mexican town has become known as “Molar city” because of dental tourism.

Americans and others visit the over 350 dentists there for low prices and fast service. Most of these dentists rely on “street hustlers” to recruit new patients.

KAWC’s Stephanie Sanchez went to Molar city to find out how this unusual job works.

Doctor Angel Camarena set up his practice in Los Algodones, Mexico two years ago.

His shop is located inside a newly constructed plaza  - away from street view.

"The truth is I’m still young here in Algodones." Camarena said in Spanish. "It’s been two good years. Tourists here are great people. They’re always seeking best prices for the best work.”     

Like many dentists here, Camarena uses a “jalador”, local Spanish slang for “a person who pulls people in.”

Jaladores greet people as soon as they cross the border into Mexico.

40-year old Alan Pacheco is a jalador in Los Algodones. He is not a medical professional but he wears gray scrubs.  

“I like to do that because I like to look more legit," Pacheco said. "They actually believe it more than if I’m just wearing some Levi’s.”

Pacheco is one of about 80 jaladores in Los Algodones. They get paid a finder’s fee to connect patients with dentists. Speaking English helps.

Pacheco learned as a young undocumented immigrant in the U.S.

"After I turned 14, I got out of hand, I just troublemaker," Pacheco said. "And I got to be deported ,which it was the best thing for them to do...to deport me. Right now I have a better life.”

Pacheco was a street vendor for a while.  Then one day, 17 years ago, he helped a tourist find a dentist. 

Pacheco said the key to his job is to be friendly, and helpful.

"You got to talk to them like you know them…so they feel comfortable," Pacheco said. "I say break the ice, you got to do that. Otherwise you can’t be a jalador.”

Pacheco said Los Algodones has changed a lot over the years, much of it in response to dental tourism.

But the town hasn’t kept up with its infrastructure.

“The streets don’t have a name on them. They don’t have signs, you see," he said. "So they get lost quick, that’s when I come in.”

That’s how Pacheco first met 78-year old George Bater from Montana. He and his wife Karen have been coming to Los Algodones for years. They met Pacheco on one of their trips. 

Pacheco works for several dentists in town and he said he steers his clients to the good ones.

“That’s the first thing I search for is the quality of work," he said.

But not all jaladores are like Pacheco. A former Mexican tourism official says some jaladores can be too aggressive. Pacheco says that’s not how he works.

“I consider myself a jalador but not by pulling people ," he said. "I just ask them where they are going and what they need and take them the right way.

Pacheco won’t say how much he makes but he says he has built a good life.

"I make good money. I got three kids and I got my own house. My own car and I pay my kids school and everything.”

A brand new medical plaza recently opened in Los Algodones.

The company that owns it hopes to build on the dental tourism model by offering expanded medical services.

A Baja California Tourism official said the push to make Los Algodones an international medical tourism destination won’t stall because of President Donald Trump’s push for an expanded border wall.

One local dentist said businesses could see a boost if the U.S. repeals and replaces the Affordable Care Act.

Medical tourism in Los Algodones, Baja California, Mexico is booming despite tension between the U.S. and Mexico.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

A dentist's office is hidden inside a plaza with curios vendors and a taco stand.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

Alan Pacheco is among 80 "jaladores" who recruit new patients for dentists in Los Algodones, Baja California, Mexico.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

Many new dentists in Los Algodones, Baja California, Mexico, hire "jaladores" to recruit new patients and establish a client base.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

Medical tourists from all over the country and the world seek low prices on dental work in Los Algodones, Baja California Mexico.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

There are over 350 dentists to choose from in Los Algodones, Mexico. Dental offices can be found anywhere you go while visiting the town.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez

There are hundreds of billboards advertising dental offices in Los Algodones.
Credit Stephanie Sanchez