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Coalition Takes Issue With Free Trade Pact : Protest: At a demonstration downtown, Mexican-American and human rights groups charge that the accord will worsen abuses in Mexico.


A coalition of Mexican-American and human rights groups launched a new assault on the North American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday, saying that approval of the controversial accord will exacerbate human rights and electoral abuses in Mexico.

About 20 demonstrators, including representatives of the National Lawyers Guild, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mexico's leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, gathered in front of the Federal Building downtown and called on the Clinton Administration to reject the measure until meaningful reforms are instituted in Mexico.

"The Clinton Administration and U.S. Chicano elected officials should break their shameful silence and condemn the brutal dictatorship that has existed in Mexico for 60 years," said Virginia Reade Belmontez, a demonstration organizer and member of the state Democratic Party's Central Committee. "We say, enough. Stop all negotiations on NAFTA . . . until democracy is installed in Mexico."

Wednesday's protest opened a potential new front against the landmark trade agreement, which would create a free market of 350 million consumers in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Critics have largely concentrated their attacks on economic and environmental grounds, saying the accord would give U.S. companies an opportunity to move businesses to Mexico, pay less to U.S. workers and pollute across the border.

James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, said approval of the accord would strengthen and entrench a political Establishment that has survived through intimidation, repression and corruption.

"In China, the American government has used a carrot-and-stick approach to bring reform," Lafferty said. "This is all carrot."

Miguel Escobar, spokesman for the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, acknowledged that there have been rights violations in Mexico. But he rejected the claim that they are widespread or government sanctioned.

"The Mexican government does not tolerate violations in human rights in any way," he said. "In some cases, torture has been applied, but we don't condone it."

Escobar added that Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made important strides in human rights and political reform. He said Salinas was responsible for the creation of a national commission on human rights and the launching of an anti-corruption campaign.

Lafferty said the world human rights community disagrees that substantial progress has been made. In November, 1992, for example, the United Nations Committee Against Torture stated that torture continues to be a "generalized and systematic practice in Mexico."

He added that the free trade agreement will encourage new repression because of pressure on the Mexican government to stifle labor unrest and control political turmoil.

Belmontez said the coalition--La Batalla del Pueblo Pro La Democracia en Mexico (The Battle of the People for Democracy in Mexico)--chose to launch its campaign on Cinco de Mayo as a symbolic gesture.

"If 131 years ago at La Batalla de Puebla a few thousand poorly armed Mexicans were able to defeat Napoleon's well-armed troops," she said, "we millions of Chicanos-Mexicanos in the U.S. can help defeat the corrupt dictatorship in Mexico."

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