In June 2016 Mexico enacted legislation enabling the establishment of free zones within ten of its least developed federal states ("the SEZ Scheme"). The states in question are all located in the south of the country, a region that historically has lagged behind the industrialised central and northern regions.

Plans are under way to set up the first three SEZ's, two of them in Pacific coast ports, Lázaro-Cárdenas and Port Chiapas in the Pacific Ocean, and a third in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, intended to facilitate an inter-oceanic corridor connecting existing ports in the Gulf of Mexico. These first three SEZs will focus respectively on: (i) automotive, aerospace, and agribusiness; (ii) heavy oil; and (iii) energy, chemical and petrochemical businesses.

Further locations for 'niche' SEZs are also proposed, one in the State of Puebla, south of Mexico City, which is likely to act as a second and third-level supply base; another in the Yucatan Peninsula is expected to focus on technological development and communications; and the third one in the State of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City, on the textile and design industries.

Mexico's SEZ Scheme differs substantially from the assembled exports (maquiladora) programme, which has been in place since the 1960's, and which currently accounts for over 80 per cent of the country's manufacturing workforce and for over USD $178billion of exports annually. The maquiladora programme, which was re-branded as IMMEX in 2006, operates as a permit-based system granted to Mexican export corporations, wherever they may be located in Mexico. The IMMEX programme allows the temporary (duty free) import of materials destined for re-export, once processed or assembled. Consequently, the foreign owner of an IMMEX entity benefits from lower employment costs and, among other tax efficiencies, at the same time as benefiting from an exemption from import duties and other taxes. In contrast, the new SEZ Scheme is geographically focused and designed to incentivise investment in given localities, where investors will benefit from limited red tape and where arbitration will be statutorily promoted for the resolution of legal disputes. The SEZ Scheme will rely on the private sector to develop industrial parks, whose administrators who will be granted up to 40-year permits to provide the necessary real estate, employment outsourcing, and other ancillary services required by investors in the parks. The import of materials to the SEZs and provision of services within them will be VAT exempt, as will be the export of any goods destined outside Mexico. Corporation tax allowances will also apply to those entities operating within a SEZ. Prospective SEZ administrators must be Mexican corporates, but may be fully owned by foreign entities. Prospective SEZ administrators will be required to submit business plans detailing the case for the park in question, and the infrastructure to be developed within the park, its management and the ancillary services to be provided. The regulator will specify the first party and third party insurance covers to be required by the SEZ administrators. At the same time, the SEZ Scheme requires the federal government to budget for and set out a Development Plan for the external infrastructure of each of the SEZ, encompassing transport, telecommunications, power and other infrastructural requirements. Mexican development banks will grant substantial soft loans of up to 70 per cent in support of SEZ investors.

It is anticipated that the decrees establishing the first sets of SEZs will be issued in 2017.

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