MEXICO CITY — NERVOUSLY, Domingo Villacorta approaches the customs official at the Mexico City airport. A $50 bill is discretely hidden in his sweaty palm - just in case. Mr. Villacorta, a garment worker in Los Angeles, is on his way home to his wife and children in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. This year, about 1.5 million Mexicans working in the United States will return for Christmas. Many will harbor concerns, based on past experience, that they will be victims of extortion.
Moments after exiting customs, Villacorta joyfully details his trouble-free passage.
``I was worried when the customs official asked me, `What's this,''' he says pointing to a battered twine-wrapped box. ```A video recorder,' I said. He asked me how much it cost. I told him $170. And then,'' says Villacorta with surprise, ``he just waved me through!''
Many more Mexicans may be pleasantly surprised upon arriving here. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has put in place a program to curb corruption and shakedowns at airports, border crossing points, and highways.
The Paisano or ``Countryman'' program began last year as a pilot effort to stop corruption. This year, it has been upgraded with the participation of seven government agencies.
Entry rules and import regulations have been simplified. Returning Mexicans are being informed of what documents they need and how much value they can legally bring into the country before being taxed. If Mexicans know their rights, say Paisano officials, they will not be a pushover if a corrupt official uses a false pretext to try to extort money.
Pamphlets in clear, simple language are being distributed in US and Mexican border city railway and bus stations, highway border crossing points, airports, and Mexican consulates. Radio and television spots also are being used to get the word out. The pamphlets provide consulate phone numbers to encourage anyone to lodge a complaint.
Paisano information booths are also being set up at entry points. College students that staff the booths (backed up by a supervisor) are supposed to provide returning Mexicans (or other visitors) with an unbiased, informed observer who can settle disputes.
``The president is very clear on the need to moralize these organizations,'' says Eduardo Ibarrola Nicolin, director-general of consular affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ``This is a preventative mechanism designed to dissuade the few bad immigration, or bad police, or bad customs officials from committing those irregular acts out of fear of losing their jobs.''
The Paisano program appears to be working. ``The results are astounding,'' says Roberto Gamboa Mascarenas, Mexico's consul-general in El Paso, Texas. ``We've witnessed a 78 percent drop in the number of complaints. We're even starting to get letters and phone calls praising government officials.''
What kinds of complaints has the consul-general received in the past? ``People were being hijacked by officials - literally robbed of their tools, money, and clothes,'' Mr. Mascarenas says.
Indeed, last year when Villacorta came home by car, he cleared customs only to be stopped a few miles down the road by members of Mexico's Federal Judicial Police. The police demanded a $50 mordida or bribe from each of the three people in the car on the pretext their papers were not in order.
But there has been a drop in the harassment of homecoming Mexicans, confirms Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center of Human Rights in Tijuana. The Paisano program is an ``excellent idea,'' says Mr. Clark. But he criticizes the way it has been carried out.
``They need more publicity and better consistency.'' The Paisano booth at the Tijuana airport was abandoned, he says, after the student staff went unpaid.
Jorge Bustamante also praises the program. But the president of the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana says it does not go far enough. ``Mexicans are being welcomed on the way in, but suffering police extortion on the way back to the US,'' he says.
The seasonal rush in December will be reversed in January and February as Mexicans flood back across the border, legally or illegally, for work, Bustamante says. Surveys done by the college, a leading migration research center, show police extortion of Mexicans heading for the US for work has risen since January.