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September 11, 2000

Mexico's Fox To Push For Free Trade

GUATEMALA CITY - Mexico's president-elect Vicente Fox pledged Monday to push for a free-trade zone from Mexico to Panama, as part of a bid to stem illegal immigration from Central America.

Kicking off a four-day tour of Central America, Fox repeated arguments he has made in talks with U.S. leaders - that economic opportunity and free trade are key to stemming the tide of immigrants north.

"Economic reasons are increasingly causing illegal immigration from here into Mexico, as they are from Mexico into the United States,'' Fox told a news conference Monday, after arriving here late Sunday.

"We need to begin creating economic and social plans that can have a regional effect, plans that will improve conditions in border regions by erasing obstacles to free trade,'' Fox said.

But like Fox's proposal for a common market with the United States - a proposal which got a chilly reception when he visited Washington in August - there are some stumbling blocks to free trade with Central America.

Mexican and Guatemalan business owners expressed concern that organized crime on both sides of the border and illegal immigration may make it difficult to achieve the kind of free market both Fox and Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo have championed.

Each year, immigrants from Central America cross into Mexico by the hundreds of thousands to make their way to the United States or work at low-paid agricultural jobs in Mexico.

The two countries agreed to appoint "border czars'' to oversee efforts to slow illegal Guatemalan immigration into Mexico. Fox also pledged to investigate past rights violations against Central American immigrants "and ensure that they will be treated with the dignity that they deserve.''

Fox, who is to travel on to neighboring Honduras later Monday, said free trade would pave the way toward social stability in the region.

"We will not adopt the concept of being the big brother of Central America like in the past,'' Fox said. "We are brothers, period, on the same economic and social levels.''

Fox, who takes office as Mexico's president Dec. 1, is scheduled to visit Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua on the trip. Mexico is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada.