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Gringo-Bashing

July 03, 1988

It was probably too much to hope that a Mexican election could be staged without at least one round of gringo-bashing; the United States is always a handy target for any Mexican politician wanting to flaunt his anti-imperialist credentials. But the means that Mexico's ruling party has chosen this time to make points--releasing Puerto Rican terrorist William Morales instead of extraditing him to the United States--is particularly outrageous.

Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda, who overrode a Mexican court's decision to extradite Morales, said that he let the convicted terrorist seek refuge in Cuba because Morales would have faced "political persecution" in the United States. Sepulveda and his countrymen insist that Morales --a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a Puerto Rican separatist group--is a political activist fighting for a worthy cause, Puerto Rican independence, and not an ordinary criminal. Mexico's distinction between political crimes and ordinary crimes may have some justification if a convict is about to be extradited to a repressive society with no forum for dissent, but surely the United States does not fall into that category.

As for "political persecution," it is worth noting that Morales escaped to Mexico in 1979 from a New York City hospital ward where surgeons were preparing to fit him with artificial hands; his own hands had been blown off when a bomb that he was making exploded prematurely. Implicated in dozens of bombings, he had been convicted in two separate trials and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. Morales undertook his deadly crimes for a cause that had been repudiated in 1967 by a majority of Puerto Ricans, who voted to retain their status as a self-governing commonwealth of the United States. Responsible Puerto Ricans are again demanding change, but so far they have not agreed on whether it should be independence or U.S. statehood.

It's clear to us that Mexico's action has nothing to do with Puerto Rico's future or with U.S.-style justice, and everything to do with Mexican electoral politics. As Reagan Administration officials suspected all along and as Mexican authorities privately confirmed to Times correspondent Dan Williams, Sepulveda feared that if Morales were extradited the leftist National Democratic Front, led by presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, would exploit the issue in next Wednesday's election, perhaps taking votes away from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. And the PRI is worried that Salinas may not get the landslide regarded as the party's due.

So far the Reagan Administration's reaction has been properly restrained. U.S. Ambassador Charles J. Pilliod was recalled to Washington to register the Administration's indignation, but he has already returned to Mexico City bearing a personal letter from President Reagan to Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid. Mexico will undoubtedly emerge from this episode with only its knuckles rapped, but the ill will that has been created may last longer. Until now, this Administration has defended Mexico from U.S. lawmakers unhappy over its inability to turn off drug traffic and illegal immigration into the United States. Will the Administration be so quick to spring to Mexico's defense in the future?

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