THE WORLD FROM...Mexico City

Mexican president bucks rising tide of popular concern over national sovereignty to press free-trade deal

IT was just a momentary flash in the United States media. But the June 15 US Supreme Court decision rubber stamping abductions of foreign criminal suspects (in this case a Mexican) still burns here.

No other issue inflames political passions more in Mexico than an affront to sovereignty. With a long history of being invaded, bullied, and fooled by the imposing colossus to the north, Mexico jealously guards its territorial integrity.

Mexican opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) see its merits but are alarmed that Mexico may be abdicating control of its economy.

The sovereignty issue:

* Is why Mexico refuses to budge on opening its precious petroleum industry up to foreign investment - although Petroleos Mexicanos is desperately short of capital.

* Is behind Mexico's refusal to permit international observers to monitor elections here.

* Underlies the high priority Foreign Minister Fernando Solana gives to violations of Mexican human rights by US law enforcement agencies on the border.

So Mexico's response to the Supreme Court decision - the revoking of the US Drug Enforcement Agency license to operate here - was not surprising. But the about-face 24 hours later did raise eyebrows.

The Mexican government announced DEA agents could continue to hunt narco-traffickers while a more satisfactory extradition treaty was negotiated. And those negotiations are continuing here. But meanwhile, the leftist critics and political cartoonists are having a field day.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is portrayed as obsequiously capitulating to the US. This, they say, hints at Mexico's future as a spineless servant to US interests as the two economies become more interdependent.

Insiders also report the pots and pans were flying in the Salinas kitchen cabinet over just who is in charge of Mexican foreign policy: Mr. Solana or the president's closest adviser and free-trade mechanic, Jose Cordoba Montoya. Rightly or wrongly, it's believed that President Salinas will permit no dispute to harm prospects for a free-trade deal.

US officials see the Salinas reversal as an indication of a maturing relationship. Mexico is not letting sovereignty histrionics spill over into the drug fight or other common concerns.

But Salinas is not alone in judging that Mexico's future, at least economically, is closely tied to free-trade prospects. So far, in June, the Mexican stock exchange has plummeted nearly 15 percent.

The nose dive was fueled in part by unannounced US presidential candidate Ross Perot's denigration of NAFTA.

"Ross Perot would be a catastrophe for free trade. They can't sleep in Los Pinos [the presidential residence] for worrying about who's going to win the US elections," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a specialist in US-Mexico relations.

President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton favor NAFTA. But Mr. Perot, while not saying he would reject the pact, has been bad-mouthing it.

Salinas recently predicted the NAFTA negotiations would be over in a few weeks. A presidential signing is likely before the November elections. But Congress will not vote on it until early next year. And, by then, the occupants of the White House and Congress may have distinctly different outlooks on Mexico-US trade.

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