In Mexico: Yanqui, behave!

To curb teenage drinking, Jurez raises age limit to 21 for its American consumers.

The southbound parade of cars packed with teens forms every Friday and Saturday night.

They come to this side of the US-Mexico border to party at watering holes promising liquor to anyone 18 years old and with a pocket full of greenbacks.

The allure is not new. But as communities on the American side of the border have gotten serious about enforcing the legal drinking age (21), the flow of youths going south has risen.

The problem of cross-border underage drinking has led to occasional US police clampdowns on inebriated youths returning north. And local communities have periodically held meetings to address this particular binational problem. But no Mexican authority has moved to help.

Until now.

In defiance of Mexican federal law and local bar owners, the governor of Chihuahua, Patricio Martnez, says bars in his state should stop serving liquor to foreigners who are minors.

No Texan, New Mexican, or

any other American kid 18 to 20 years old can be served a beer or a tequila at Ciudad Jurez nightspots, even though in Mexico they are adults.

"There's no reason Jurez should continue to be the cantina for El Paso, Texas' minors," says Governor Martnez in a statement released by his office.

By making his call, Martnez has taken flak for disregarding Mexican law - which establishes adulthood at 18 - and is seen as a party buster by some under-age American youths. But he has achieved almost hero status for some people on the northern side of the border, including educators and parents who see a foreign official they knew little about sticking his neck out to help them protect their kids.

"I salute [Martnez] for taking up this issue and trying to work with us," says Henry Dorantes, assistant principal of Coronado High School in El Paso. "Finally we have someone taking a stand."

Martnez's action also gets a thumbs up from the Mayor of El Paso, Carlos Ramrez, who says a "gentlemen's agreement" he worked out with Jurez bar owners last year was never respected. Following the governor's initiative last week, some bars on Jurez Street in downtown Jurez - popular in the day with US tourists seeking Mexican trinkets and at night with partying gringos - have put up signs prohibiting entry to US citizens under 21.

But the governor has opened a legal can of worms and suffered the criticism of Mexicans - including Jurez business leaders as well as the mayor - who ask which country's laws the governor took office to uphold.

The problem of cross-border, alcohol-tinted partying captured local attention after five El Paso youths returning from a night of drinking in Jurez were killed in a one-car accident Jan. 26. Parents and neighbors say the lack of a traffic light at the corner where the accident occurred was a factor, while the police say excessive speed caused the crash. But it's the fact that Jurez bars served Texans under 21 that has held people's attention and turned the local tragedy into a controversy.

Elizabeth Burgoa de Lpez, owner of the Copa Cabana discotheque where the five youths celebrated a birthday before returning home, told local reporters she felt morally but not legally responsible for the tragedy. "If my son bought a pistol in Kmart and committed suicide, I couldn't take any action against the store," she said. Jurez business leaders generally side with the bar owners, saying the responsibility for the accident stops at the youths themselves and their parents.

"I understand that the governor is making a good will gesture. The problem is that the law of the land in Mexico is our Constitution, and it sets adulthood at 18 years of age," says Jurez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo Aguilar. "When a Mexican goes to the United States he is subject to US laws, and no one there would think of modifying that."

Mr. Elizondo says that if he had his way no young people from either country would be served alcohol, "but that would require constitutional changes, without which not serving legal adults would be a matter of discrimination."

For his part, Governor Martnez says the "discretional powers" the law assigns to his office allow him to take action such as prohibiting the sale of alcohol to those who are still minors in their own country.

Calling his order part of a "good-neighbor policy," the governor says the "family values" he has promoted since taking office in 1998 are not exclusively for Chihuahuenses "but for our neighbors as well."

And it's not just adults on the northern side of the border who appreciate what the Mexican governor is trying to do. Coronado High School's Dorantes says his 17-year-old daughter wrote a letter to the local paper, The El Paso Times, supporting Martnez's initiative. "You talk to kids and you find out that most of them are into clean fun, but sometimes some parents and the community need help in protecting some of the others," says Mr. Dorantes. "This governor seems to understand that."

He says he agrees that the laws of each country need to be respected, but he says border cities like El Paso and Jurez are also a "community" that can "work together through dialogue" to arrive at understandings and common standards.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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