The biography of Marco Antonio López, who will be named chief of staff Friday for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, reads like that of a boy wonder.
As a teen, López, who was raised in the border community of Nogales, Ariz., was following a television cameraman, learning about news. He then was off to the nation's capital, working as a page for politicians and getting an eyeful of the Washington scene.
At 21, he joined the White House staff, where he was assigned to work on advance travel preparations for Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. He then joined Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
That same year, the University of Arizona graduate was elected mayor of Nogales at age 22 and resigned three years later to accept an appointment as executive director of the Arizona-Mexico Commission under then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Earlier this year, at age 30 and four appointments later, López followed Napolitano, new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to the nation's capital and to his upcoming federal position.
López said in a recent interview he is ready to keep his bosses, including Napolitano, up to date on decisions, reports, meetings and dealings of senior management within the agency.
"Customs and Border Protection employs 54,000 in southern, northern and coastal borders of the United States. It oversees Border Patrol, the ports of entry, air and marine interdiction, agricultural and trade specialists," said López.
"We also deal with gathering intelligence and information to keep individuals out of the country that we don't want in.
"My job is to facilitate all the data and produce it in such a way so that the tough decisions can be made," said López, who will attend briefings and schedule travel for the commissioner to see firsthand what is going on at borders and ports.
He expects travel to be a big part of his job. "Secretary Napolitano is keen on not to forget the perspective outside of Washington," said López, explaining the importance of knowing firsthand the logistics of the borders and ports of this country and the inspection of cargo abroad before it makes its way to the United States.
Growing up in a border community, serving as mayor of Nogales and in state positions helped prepare López for his federal appointment.
"My main responsibilities as director of the Arizona-Mexico Commission were border security, renovation and development of the ports of entry, and developing state relationships with Mexico and other countries," he said.
He said the agency also deals with keeping the ports running smoothly, processing travelers efficiently and letting cargo and goods cross into the country in an efficient and safe manner — all areas he touched upon when he worked in Arizona.
"It laid a good foundation, but there is a lot more that is new to me such as the northern border, seaports and much more in air interdiction and contraband through aircraft," said López.
Currently a senior adviser, López is learning the dynamics of the various units within the agency. He is seeing staffers who are in their mid-20s in homeland security, and he no longer is considered an anomaly. "There are younger people than me, and I am not used to seeing that," laughed López.
Meanwhile, López, who moved into an apartment in Rosslyn, Va., still has his sights on achieving a political goal in Arizona.
"Before I hit 40, I want to be governor of Arizona," said López, who misses family, friends and playing golf in the sun.
Those who know López are not surprised by how quickly he has climbed.
"Marco is a hard worker and that is why he is where he is today," said his mother, Esther Meléndez López, 58, a Nogales city councilwoman who owns Picoretas Candy and Gift Shop and Frida's Bed and Breakfast. "I am proud of all my children and I taught them that they have a moral obligation to give back a piece of themselves to the community where they live," said Meléndez López, explaining her son's interest in public service.
She and her husband, Marco Antonio López, 62, a plumber who owns a general contracting business, also have two daughters.
Juan Pablo Guzmán, clerk of Superior Court for Santa Cruz County, was a student at the UA alongside López. He helped López when López was running for Nogales mayor.
Guzmán, who is blind, recalled how López inspired him and sought his support. "He gave me an opportunity and took me into consideration as a person with abilities," recalled Guzmán, who joined López's mayoral staff.
"Anything Marco touches he puts his all into it. He has a tremendous amount of energy," said Pati Urias, director of communications for the state Department of Commerce.
Napolitano met López in 2003, and "people took note because he was young, energetic and willing to be a part of change," Urias recalled.
at a glance
• Marco Antonio López was born in Nogales, Sonora, on April 7, 1978. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen March 25, 1994, in a ceremony that afforded him dual citizenship.
• At age 14 in 1992, he was an intern for KMSB-TV in Nogales.
• At 16 in 1994, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a page for House and Senate Democrats, before returning home and graduating from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in 1999. He majored in liberal arts and political science. He also worked for former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe.
• At 21 in 1999, he joined the White House staff, where he was assigned to work on advance travel preparations for Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. He then joined Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
• At age 22 in 2000, he was elected mayor of Nogales and served from 2001 to 2003.
• At age 25 in 2003, he was appointed executive director of Arizona-Mexico Commission under then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.
• At age 26 in 2004, he was appointed Latin American policy adviser to Napolitano.
• At age 28 in 2006, he was appointed senior adviser to Napolitano.
• At age 30 in 2008, he was appointed director of the Arizona Department of Commerce under Napolitano.
• At age 30 in February 2009, he was named senior adviser to W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Basham retired Saturday, and López is set to be the chief of staff for the acting commissioner on Friday under Napolitano, who is the new secretary of homeland security.