Mexico's Double Standard

CARLOS FUENTES once described the United States-Mexico border as a 2,000-mile ''scar.'' It is sensitive to even the slightest touch.

The scar has been irritated again, this time with a new US plan to field 300 federal agents in a coordinated strategy with local law enforcement officials and the military. Combining sophisticated listening devices with low-tech foot patrols, Washington wants to lick the immigration issue before it becomes a presidential campaign slogan.

Mexico's well-oiled machine that reacts to the northern border has shifted into high gear. The country called on the United Nations to mediate the border dispute, and US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones was summoned to the Foreign Relations Secretariat to discuss the matter.

Ironically, despite all the complaining about the ''militarization'' of the border, critics have overlooked an important fact: Mexico has used a US-style immigration model along its border with Guatemala.

This smaller, equally painful wound is lost sight of by diplomats focusing on the trauma inflicted along the US-Mexico border.

In the past two years, more road blocks and additional federal officials have been stationed along the southern border in Mexico's attempt to halt an influx of refugees, undocumented immigrants, and drugs.

The Army has regular patrols in the jungle that try to intercept both arms to the Zapatista rebels and uninvited guests. Another military base is to be constructed in Chiapas, which could play a role in the continued militarization in the southern end of Mexico.

Officials are quick to point out that the border serves as a link in the overland route for drug smuggling - the same rationale the US has used for its tightly monitored border.

Like the US frontier, the Mexico-Guatemala border has always been tense. During the early 1980s, Guatemalan refugees poured across the border into Mexico to escape terror at home.

Today, thousands of refugees still live in UN-run camps in the states of Campeche and Chiapas. Many are still afraid to go home.

Unlike its northern border, Mexico's southern flank has stayed out of the headlines. A dense jungle covers most of the mountainous region, and the small towns along the way generally do not show up on the international or domestic media's radar.

It is this isolation that breeds the potential for abuse, rights activists say. Migrant-rights advocates welcome the attention given to the plight of the undocumented along the northern border, but they feel that it also tends to distract people from looking south.

Where are the witty editorial cartoons, long-winded opinion pieces, and snappy sound bites from officials about the problems on the southern border?

To his credit, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon did meet privately Jan. 14 with Guatemala's new president, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, regarding the border; details of the talks were not made public, however.

Church groups have played a role in assisting refugees and monitoring the border, but their resources are limited and their constituency is unpopular.

Manuel Bartlett, now the governor of Puebla, said in a confidential memo during his tenure as head of Mexico's Interior Secretariat (which oversees immigration) that Guatemalan immigrants were taking jobs from Mexicans and creating social problems. That is an institutionalized feeling about all immigrants, regardless of where they come from, says one religious leader in Chiapas.

Mexico's indignation over the US's methods of combating undocumented immigration and the transportation of drugs is justified. Its hypocrisy in the south is not.

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