In the land of cocoa, chocolate cars abound

As a Christmas present to himself, Enrique Ortega went north to Colorado Springs, Colo., and bought a 1987 Nissan Stanza for $1,200.

Now the owner of a medical-instruments business in Ciudad Jurez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is driving around in an unregistered, plateless car the Mexican government considers illegal.

But to Mr. Ortega it was simply a smart business deal.

"This same car with its legal registration and plates and everything would have cost $1,800 or more here," says Ortega. He adds that, like many Mexicans, and especially those living on the border with the United States, he has made the same northward trek several times when he needed a new car.

"I know it's a problem for the government and the auto dealers sure don't like it," he says, "but you can't argue with your wallet. You have to take care of your own situation first."

Ortega's Stanza is one of as many as 2 million illegal and unregistered cars thought to be plying Mexican streets every day, reminders of a debilitating lack of the rule of law. Authorities say the cars are involved in a disproportionate number of crimes and hit-and-run accidents that go unsolved for lack of vehicle identification, while Mexico's auto industry sees the cheap imports as a damper on its business.

But Mexicans like Ortega say high used-car prices, inaccessible auto-financing credit, and exorbitant registration fees - along with the simple fact that the cars aren't hard to get into the country - make the imports a matter of common sense.

Called chocolates, or "crooked" cars, for their often obscure and irregular origins, the cars make up more than 10 percent of Mexico's entire fleet or 14 million cars. And that percentage rises much higher along the border in cities like Jurez and in farm communities around the country where American pickups are prized.

The chocolates garnered a flurry of attention last November when the federal government, in an attempt to clamp down on car importation, announced that a refundable fee ranging up to $800 would be charged on foreign-registered cars entering the country.

The new fee was timed to coincide with the annual holiday visit of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans residing in the US, thousands of whom are thought to drive into Mexico each year with a car they plan to leave behind with family as a nice holiday gift. But it was quickly dropped after Mexican groups in the US announced plans to boycott Mexican products and even curtail their south-of-the-border visits - leaving the government once again looking for a way to address the 2-million-car problem.

"These cars and especially pickups were originally let in with the idea of helping living conditions in the rural areas," says Rul Ramos Tercero, undersecretary for standards in Mexico's Commerce Ministry. "But this has grown into a complex problem that is affecting industry and having serious impact on the respect for law."

One reason Mexicans continue to import the chocolates without feeling too bad about breaking the law is that, despite whatever else it may say, the government has regularly come through with a legalization of the cars. Between 1983 and 1994 the government had nine "regularization" programs, the last of which legalized 200,000 cars.

Unlike previous administrations, the five-year-old government of President Ernesto Zedillo has never held a regularization program. Mr. Ramos says that other than some possible flexibility on pickups, the government is going to hold firm. "This government has said very clearly that it does not foresee the possibility of regularization," he says.

The government has set up a computer system for the northern border designed to register cars entering the country. The idea is that no one who has entered with a car in the last four years and not gone back out with it would be allowed to come in with another car. There are also moves in Congress to approve a new regularization program.

But Jurez's Ortega says he simply drove his car through Mexican Custom's random red-light, green-light system at the Jurez crossing, and took his Stanza home. "If I'd got a red light, they would have confiscated the car for the absence of papers, but I got the green," he says.

So where does that leave some 2 million plateless, unregistered cars?

Wreaking havoc with law enforcement, according to Jurez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo Aguilar. "Last year in our city alone we had 3,500 accidents involving cars that had no identification, so in most cases there was no identifiable person to hold responsible for the damages," says the mayor. "How do you tell the parents of a small girl who is killed by a car that then flees the scene that no one will ever be held accountable for their loss?"

Frustrated by what he calls the federal government's "preference for simply closing its eyes," the mayor has created Jurez's own car-ID program. It offers a car owner two free license-plate-sized stickers (for the front and back of the car) in exchange for registering the auto in a city information bank. "This is first a public safety measure," Elizondo says. "But it is also a way to strengthen our position with federal authorities so they do something to solve this problem."

Since the city's sticker holds no sway with federal authorities, it doesn't get any car carrying it any deeper into Mexico than a federal checkpoint located about 20 miles south of the city.

Critics like Jurez's auto dealers say the city's program is making matters worse by legitimizing the practice of bringing in illegal cars.

Judging by the number of new used cars driving around town with temporary paper permits from places as far away as Kansas, they might be right. But others say the city is only addressing an anomaly that has been around for a long time.

"In the first week we registered more than 6,500 cars, so we think that shows people's interest in contributing to the city's public safety," says Hermn Chvez, coordinator of the city sticker program. "But it's not people who went over [the border] and bought a car because they could get a sticker."

Jurez resident Ortega, who welcomed the city's sticker for his new Stanza, agrees.

"This program's good because it should help make people more responsible in their driving, and having the sticker is also a sign that you're not driving a stolen car," he says

"But people are going to buy these cars with or without the city getting involved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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