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World Perspective | MEXICO

In a Twist, Nation May Issue Warning About Travel in U.S.

May 21, 1999|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — U.S. citizens are accustomed to reading State Department advice about the hazards of travel to Mexico City and other tourist destinations. Now Mexicans may soon be warned about the dangers of travel to a major U.S. city.

"The Mexican government is considering the possibility of issuing a travel warning about Houston," a Foreign Ministry official confirmed.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed the Mexican government's concern about a steadily escalating dispute over the handling of the killings of three Mexicans by police officers in the Texas city since 1997.

"Mexican officials are really concerned about this climate of violence," the official said, "especially since it is coming from the police."

All three cases involve Mexicans living in Houston who were shot during alleged crimes. None of the officers involved has been charged.

But the dispute reflects a broader resentment here about the treatment of Mexicans who travel to or live in the United States--and perceived U.S. indifference to their complaints.

Guadalupe Chipole Ibanez, head of the migrant support program of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, said its four border offices have received 917 complaints of human rights violations against Mexicans in the United States since April 1997.

Mexicans living in the United States "have worked for years at low pay for the American society, [but] the attitude to Mexicans is often very hostile," she said. "They are often treated in the most humiliating manner."

"I believe this message that the government of Mexico wants to send to Houston is an important step," Chipole said. "In the cases we handle, the government is not energetic enough in its protests. It crosses its arms."

Houston Mayor Lee Brown said last week that a travel warning is unnecessary because "Houston has one of the lowest crime rates for any large city in America" and its citizens "are protected by one of the finest law enforcement organizations in the world."

Brown said his city's Police Department is "working closely with Mexican government officials to improve the lines of communication."

Texas officials clearly would prefer to avoid a diplomatic wrangle, especially because Gov. George W. Bush has made friendly relations with Mexico one of his top priorities.

Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards said she hopes the matter won't escalate into such an advisory. She said that after a reporter's inquiry, "the governor spoke with the mayor of Houston, who has assured the governor that they are conducting a thorough investigation and also are in touch with Mexican officials on this issue.

"We offer visitors from Mexico the same legal and law enforcement protections we provide our own citizens."

The matter was on the agenda Thursday at a meeting of the trade committee of the Houston City Council, and Mexican Consul General Rodulfo Figueroa was invited to attend as an observer.

At the meeting, local business and government officials stressed the importance of Texas-Mexico ties for Houston's economic health.

"I urge Mexican travelers and government officials to focus on our long-standing friendship and historical ties," City Controller Sylvia Garcia said. "There should be a way to resolve our differences."

Consular spokesman Marco Dosal said Figueroa had advised the Foreign Ministry not to issue any advisory in the interest of maintaining good relations. Figueroa met Monday with Houston police and reported progress on the latest case, Dosal said.

Of the three Mexicans killed by Houston police, the most controversial case involves Pedro Oregon Navarro, who was shot 12 times, nine in the back, during a police drug bust in July 1997. Oregon was armed but didn't shoot.

Uvaldo Garcia Armendariz was shot in September 1997 when he allegedly threatened police with a chair when they answered a domestic disturbance call. Last month, police say, robbery suspect Eulogio Perez was killed after he fired at officers who had stopped him.

Expressing Mexico's anger over perceived excessive use of police force and slow official follow-up in the cases, the Foreign Ministry official in Mexico City said, "We have the sense that the investigators are not getting to the bottom of the cases."

*

Lianne Hart in The Times' Houston Bureau and Greg Brosnan in the Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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