MEXICO CITY — Hoping to ride an international wave of legalized gambling, the world's most profitable gaming business is setting its sights on Mexico.
Foxwoods Casino, in Ledyard, Conn., has offered to finance construction of one of the first casinos here since Mexico banned them three generations ago. But unlike its Las Vegas competitors scrambling to get a contract if gaming laws change soon, Foxwoods has a unique pitch: Pan-American Indian solidarity.
"We felt that if there was going to be a casino industry in Mexico, we wanted Indians included," says Bill Means, an Oglala Lakota Indian and a principal investor in Minneapolis-based Calumet International, a gaming management company brokering the deal.
To further that goal, Mr. Means - who with his brother Russell helped propel the American Indian Movement to prominence during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D. - has recruited an unlikely set of allies: political advisers to the leftist Zapatista guerrilla army, prominent ruling-party and opposition politicians, and Guatemalan human-rights activist Rigoberta Mench Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.
The casino offer grew out of calls for unity between Indians in the US and Mexico that started three years ago with the Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. Since then, the Zapatistas have been negotiating off and on with the government in the hope of gaining limited constitutional autonomy for the nation's 10 million indigenous people.
But Indians on both sides of the border are divided over the potential impact of the casino plan. Critics worry that offers to share casino payouts are motivated by self-interest and would destroy the native cultures they are designed to preserve.
"It will bring drugs, alcoholism, prostitution of children, general delinquency, theft, and assaults with all that money - more negative effects than social benefit," says Alejandro Mosqueda, director of human rights projects at Chiltak, a Mayan organization in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.
"There are other ways to invest in the people," he adds. "What real social benefit do casinos bring? Will there be better crops? No."
But other Indian leaders have suggested casinos could provide a needed boost to the standard of living in marginalized communities.
Forty-three percent of Indians - more than twice the rate of Mexico as a whole - earn less than the national minimum wage, and an equal number are illiterate.
Carlos Manzo, an economist from Oaxaca State, directs economic development programs for the nine-month-old National Indigenous Congress and has worked closely with Means. Mr. Manzo says Indian casinos could work in Mexico.
"Any number of games deserve to be investigated and analyzed," Manzo said at a Mexico City press conference about the human rights advocacy of the American Indian Movement (AIM). "It could become a form of cultural recuperation and mean development for indigenous peoples, improving income for education, health, housing."
Manzo added: "If you ask me if I prefer a casino to a refinery, well, I prefer a casino."
Though Mexico may be the next country to legalize casinos, officials say they have no plans to give preference to Indian proposals. Calumet must compete equally with other firms to present a viable plan.
A spokesman for Foxwoods, the billion-dollar-a-year cash cow of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation, refused to give any details, saying only that there were "preliminary discussions." But Means has promised that their casino would set aside some profits to benefit poor Indian communities, as Indian casinos must do by law in the United States.
To revive its revolutionary image while selling casinos, AIM has sought the endorsements of the guerrillas they see as a vanguard for Indian rights. One AIM leader said that in recent months the group has been having "high-level" talks about gambling with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
The rebels are still hiding in the mountains, 3-1/2 years after they briefly took over several Chiapas cities to demand democratic reforms and to protest the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. So far, the Zapatistas have not responded publicly to the casino idea.
"None of them have closed the door," reports Vernon Bellecourt, an AIM veteran and a coordinator for the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Centers.
"They're realistically looking at the situation," says Mr. Bellecourt, who traveled last summer with Means to Chiapas for the guerrillas' International Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity. "But I don't think the Zapatistas are willing to lay down their arms just because they are promised a resort casino. They want peace with dignity and freedom."
Activists and academics close to the Zapatistas say the rebels would never endorse casinos, even with an Indian face. Ideologically, the rebels seem closer to Cuban revolutionaries, who in 1959 stormed Havana casinos and smashed the slot machines, viewing gambling as a symbol of the excesses of capitalism.
"Casinos just don't jibe with the revolutionary struggle the Zapatistas are waging," says Josefina Saldana, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., who translated for Bellecourt at the Zapatista conference.
In March, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos issued a call to all tribes in the US to support their Indian kin in Chiapas, and to pressure the US government to stop antidrug military aid that he says Mexico is using to repress peasant supporters of the Zapatista movement.
AIM, in turn, flexed its political muscle in the United Nations to help the Zapatistas. Later that month, the International Indian Treaty Council, the diplomatic arm of AIM also headed by Means, announced a plan to enable Marcos to address the UN General Assembly in the fall to denounce his government's human rights record. The Treaty Council has also spoken out at UN conferences on behalf of the peace accords.
AIM is also working on trade projects through another spinoff headed by Means, the nonprofit Indigenous Trading Company. It hopes to establish Indian-to-Indian commercial networks that would move millions of pounds of coffee, vegetables, shrimp, and handcrafts north, and adventuresome tourists south - tourists who might, at the end of the day, want to gamble.
Rigoberta Menchu's role
These projects have caught the eye of Rigoberta Menchu Tum, an indigenous woman in Guatemala who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with Mayan Indians. Last February, Ms. Mench and Manzo visited four Minneapolis-area Indian casinos and businesses at the invitation of AIM. In March, Mench also visited Foxwoods casino. She is currently in the Netherlands convalescing after medical treatment and could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman said that while she does not explicitly endorse Indian casinos in Latin America, neither is she opposed.
While supporters say casinos would boost the standard of living, critics insist they would destroy the native cultures they are designed to protect. "The indigenous are exploited as objects of folklore, as a curiosity. They're not allowed to make a profit. If they legalize casinos, then they have to give consideration to the indigenous people like any other citizens. It's a simple issue of equal rights."
Means has also befriended Amado Avendao, an opposition candidate for governor in Chiapas in 1994, who is close to the Zapatistas. Mr. Avendano hosted AIM members in San Cristobal de las Casas, rented them his truck to visit Indian villages, and later toured Minnesota with members of the Treaty Council.
No reservations for Mexico
Legal advisers to the Zapatistas say that neither US reservations nor casinos were used as legal models during the rebels' recent talks with the government over changing the Constitution to allow limited Indian autonomy.
"The regime of reservations in the United States was thought up as a way to place the indigenous into a corral from which they could not escape," says Adelfo Regino, coordinator of Mixe People's Services, an indigenous organization in Oaxaca, and an adviser to the Zapatistas. "In Mexico it's different. We're proposing that our autonomy fit inside Mexican federalism. That's the fundamental difference."
After years of assertions by US Indian tribes that state gambling bans did not apply to sovereign reservation land, the US Congress in 1988 passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, permitting no-holds-barred casinos on reservations and creating a bureaucratic structure to monitor them.
Since then, 150 Indian casinos have been built, bringing capital to some previously destitute tribes. And they have made some, including the 300 registered members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, unimaginably wealthy.
This year Foxwoods lent its name - and financial weight - to Means's Calumet when it presented its casino plan to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
"We don't want to come and just give jobs and take the profits north across the border," Means said. "There's nothing wrong with making a reasonable profit, but it has to be shared with the community. That's what makes ours distinct out of all of them."
But the ethical disputes over Indian gaming are far from resolved in the US, and political activists who work on cross-border Indian solidarity say entrepreneurs like Means are trying to export a controversial American business abroad.
"If you're talking about casinos and more foreign investment, that's what's killing indigenous people down there," says Crystal Echohawk, a Pawnee Indian who works to build ties to the American Indian community for the Texas-based National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, the unofficial Zapatista mouthpiece in the US.
"It's all about money and pushing people off the land. Mexico has become a playground for the US. We're sucking it dry."