Mexican government aims to ease discontent in northern region. Promise of economic aid seen as bid to cool ire over election results

Chihuahua, one of Mexico's most politically sensitive states, is likely to become the beneficiary of as much largess as the economically strapped government in Mexico City can muster. This assistance, say many Mexicans, represents an effort by the ruling party to ease dissatisfaction in the region stemming from the controversial election results of this summer.

One Mexican entrepreneur, who asked not to be identified, says the July elections in the key northern states of Chihuahua and Durango have led to much grumbling by the region's middle class. The official vote count denied governorships to the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and swept out of office dozens of PAN mayors and legislators who had won elections in 1983 and 1985.

There are many claims -- documented by election watch-dog groups of both the left and the right -- that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) relied heavily on ballot stuffing and other forms of fraud for its electoral triumphs in the two states.

Other incidents have contributed further to the concern felt by PRI's political opponents about the conduct of Mexican authorities.

Federal immigration agents abducted the operator of a Ju'arez ice cream parlor early last month, taking him to Mexico City where he was questioned for several hours. Though Nicaraguan-born Alejandro Burgos had his papers in order, his interrogators made it clear they looked dimly on his business partnership with a prominent PAN supporter.

After returning to Ju'arez at his own expense, Mr. Burgos fled across the border to El Paso, Texas. There he became one of seven persons who, since the mid-summer elections, have asked for asylum in the United States.

The others were the PAN mayor of Parral and five of his followers, who say their involvement in post-election protests led to warrants for their arrest. The six PAN members returned to Mexico earlier this month because the Chihuahua attorney general assured them that no charges were pending.

However, upon their return, the Mexican authorities threatened to prosecute them on criminal charges. The PAN members responded that they were no longer afraid of government law enforcement authorities because the public support was so great that it would make it impossible to keep them in jail.

Whether or not the charges of fraud in July's elections are valid, the situation in northern Mexico shows signs of significant polarization.

Bob Toberman, international marketing director for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, says that Mexicans he has been doing business with for years have stopped speaking to each other since the elections.

Relatives of the PRI mayor-elect of Ju'arez have used newspaper display ads to implore him not to darken the family's reputation by taking office on the basis of a suspect vote count.

After the elections, some disappointed PAN members considered leaving Mexico, says the border entrepreneur. ``The peso is so weak that the expense of moving would cost them a great deal of hardship,'' he says. With the peso now trading at more than 700 to the dollar, up from around 450 last January, selling a house in Mexico would not generate the funds needed for a down payment on comparable quarters in the United States.

The entreprenuer expects that now that PRI has ``awarded itself a nearly clean sweep of races for governor, mayor and state assemblies,'' it will launch a major bid to cool its opponents' ire.

A US promoter heavily involved in border development projects agrees. He says that one indication of Mexico City's concern with Chihuahua is the post-election decision to relocate key agencies involved in attracting foreign-owned assembly plants to Ju'arez.

Financial and academic observers also expect a spate of projects and publicity to prove that PRI -- having never lost a race for senator, governor, or president in 57 years -- can still get things done. This, says one source, increases the likelihood that Mexico will ``disregard belt-tightening measures that it agreed to with the International Monetary Fund and will overspend in order to keep people pacified.''

This means residents of Ju'arez and Chihuahua City, the state capital, may look forward to new paving, better street lighting, and improved drainage. Some neighborhoods on the crowded outskirts of both cities may finally get such urban amenities as electricity and running water.

An early sign of the attempted reconciliation is the ``New Ju'arez'' program designed by industrialist Jaime Bermudez, the city's mayor-elect. Mr. Bermudez is a prime mover behind the manufacturing boom that made Chihuahua a world-class competitor in low-cost assembly of televisions, appliances, computers, and dozens of other items.

With the help of the government, Bermudez says, he is going to provide 90 percent of Ju'arez's 1.2 million inhabitants with clean drinking water, while also building three community centers and a cultural center. Bermudez has received assurances that Mexico City will support his efforts and is waiting for federal funds.

Given enough federal help, it is widely agreed, some of Bermudez's plans could become reality.

However, what is unclear is how successful such efforts might be in defusing the anti-PRI sentiment which is smoldering throughout northern Mexico.

In Sinaloa State, where elections for the positions of governor, state representatives, and mayors are scheduled for Oct. 26, PAN leaders have been threatening to withdraw rather than face a repeat of events in Chihuahua.

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