A Human Rights Challenge Next Door

IF millions of Mexicans continue to be excluded from the benefits of economic growth, facing an often unresponsive political system, courts that cannot redress their grievances, and military and police forces that threaten rather than protect human rights, then prosperity and stability will never be secure.

During a visit to the country in January to explore trade opportunities for Bay State environmental firms and to tour the troubled Chiapas region, I was struck by the two Mexicos I saw. Part of the country was wealthy and sophisticated, with gleaming office suites and thriving business activity. Then there was the Mexico of poverty and struggle, a third-world enclave separated by language and culture from the powerful landowners and industrialists who rule the nation.

In some ways, it reminds me of my own congressional district, where some of the country's largest banks and insurance companies do business in sight of Boston's poorest citizens but never with them.

To Mexico's credit, President Salinas de Gortari, Foreign Minister Manuel Tello, and Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, president of the National Human Rights Commission, openly acknowledge the need to address the glaring inequalities in Mexican society. I believe there are two major areas of reform that must take place.

First is human rights. Along with other groups, the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights has documented arbitrary searches, detentions, interrogations, and torture of indigenous groups by the military and police - a record of intimidation that stretches back for years. Example: Last March, after the disappearance of two soldiers, a force of 400 soldiers and police detained, searched, and beat civilians in two Tzotzil villages, torturing a number of people in detention. At the end of April the Army returned, again looting homes and interrogating and torturing villagers. When a police raiding party came to the same village in May they found it deserted.

Meanwhile, outside observers say Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has all too often been ineffective and in some cases may have stonewalled investigations. The commission is prohibited from investigating labor or political disputes or judicial conduct. It has no statutory power to enforce its recommendations or carry out prosecutions, and it has a reputation for being cautious in investigating cases that involve abuses by the Army or that may be embarrassing to the ruling Industrial Revolutionary Party.

Second, democratization must be accelerated. The people of Chiapas have been involved in peasant unions and other civic associations organized to press peaceably for the defense of their culture and livelihood. But for the struggling Indians in particular, generations of one-party rule have made the ballot box a dead-end street. The Zapatista National Liberation Army made this clear in its commuique released the day of the revolt: ``The serious state of poverty shared by our compatriots has a common cause: lack of liberty and democracy.''

The Salinas government spent over $50 million in Chiapas for economic reform that essentially benefited wealthy ranchers and party regulars - concrete proof of the need for more significant change.

At the end of January, President Salinas took an important step in this direction, when the government and eight political parties signed an accord for sweeping electoral reforms that will be tested in the unfolding campaigns for the elections this August. And just this week, government negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, began direct negotiations with the Zapatista rebels.

Terrorized Indians, starving people in an agriculturally rich land, the lack of judicial rights, the inability of peasants to own land, and the illegal expropriation of property - all these tragedies point to the absence of democracy's protective barrier that defends the people from the powers of the state and the wealthy.

Those who would call for China-like sanctions, I believe, miss the point. Mexico is our friend, and its people are committed to democracy. The United States has pressing moral, political, and economic interests in maintaining a close partnership with Mexico and in the success of its reform efforts. As a friend and neighbor we are obligated to offer constructive criticism and support efforts to achieve democracy and social justice.

Mexico will succeed in setting the groundwork for stable and equitable development when Mayan farmers no longer fear the whims of the Army, police, or local landlords, and when the young descendants of a proud culture no longer suffer the pangs of hunger in a land of bounty.

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