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THE WORLD

Pemex Oil Workers Agree to 7.3% Raise

Mexico: Settlement is seen as a victory for Fox. Meanwhile, anti-graft efforts win praise.

September 30, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Mexico averted a crippling strike at its state-owned oil monopoly Sunday as union members agreed to a 7.3% pay increase, a settlement seen as a victory for President Vicente Fox in his ongoing effort to curb corruption and the union's political power.

In signing a one-year deal, the Oil Workers Union of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, agreed to a pay raise far below the 15% it had demanded. The union had threatened a strike Tuesday that would have disrupted oil exports to the United States and thrown Mexico's oil-dependent economy for a loop.

In challenging the 92,000-member union closely tied to the once ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Fox portrayed the wage demand as "blackmail" to force his government to withdraw fraud charges against union leaders in connection with the alleged diversion of $170 million in Pemex funds to the PRI's 2000 presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Fox's efforts on another anti-corruption fight--homicide charges brought against three high-ranking Mexican army officers for alleged involvement in the nation's "dirty war" against dissidents--drew praise over the weekend.

The charges are the first lodged against army officers in the disappearance of hundreds of government opponents thought to have died at the hands of the police and military between the late 1960s and early 1980s. They came as Fox, who took office nearly two years ago, is still striving to deliver on a campaign promise to clean up Mexico.

The action by a military tribunal last week could also give "coherence and legitimacy" to Fox's campaign to prosecute the union leaders and other cases, said Jorge Chabat, a crime and security expert at the Mexico City-based Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

"This clearly gives Fox more authority with which to apply the law against civilians, whether in the dirty war or other matters," Chabat said. "He can now say that not even the military has immunity."

A military tribunal charged two generals, Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Francisco Quiroz Hermosillo, who have been imprisoned since 2000 on drug trafficking charges. A third officer, retired Maj. Francisco Barquin, was arrested in connection with the deaths of 143 people. Relatives and other witnesses testified that the missing leftists were last seen in the officers' custody.

Noting that there remain questions surrounding the alleged crimes, Sergio Aguayo, a political science professor at Colegio de Mexico, said the charges are important because they were brought against high-ranking players in the "security apparatus created by the state" to combat government opponents.

"This investigation will continue, given that there is a social grievance that society will continue to insist on pursuing," Aguayo said.

Other observers, however, including political scientist Pamela Starr of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, or ITAM, said the charges might have less to do with Fox than with an effort by the military to "inoculate itself" against charges of responsibility for two massacres, in 1968 and 1971, by serving up "sacrificial victims with little political risk."

"These are generals who already appear to be definitely guilty. They were implicated in drug trafficking," Starr said.

Rosario Ibarra, president of the Eureka Committee, an advocacy group for the families of hundreds of "disappeared" from past decades, said the charges didn't go far enough because they failed to say who might have ordered the officers to commit murder.

Federico Estevez, also an ITAM professor, added that the Pemex fraud case is the "acid test" for the Fox government, which swept to victory in July 2000 on a tide of public optimism that it would fight corruption, past and present.

"The Fox government found it could no longer slide on its promise to challenge the powerful remnants of the old system," Estevez said. "He blows this one and it goes to the heart of his campaign message."

Chabat said: "You cannot legitimize enforcing the law unless you enforce it for everyone. How can union leaders claim immunity if even the generals are in jail?"

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