Warning Signs From Washington And Mexico City

Last week's dismissal of yet another Mexican attorney general -- the sixth in eight years -- and an uncharacteristic warning from the U.S. ambassador are but the latest signs of trouble brewing south of the border. The sweeping economic reforms of the last decade have profoundly altered Mexico's traditional social structure but left its political institutions, which have been dominated by a single party (the PRI) for seventy years, impervious to change. For lack of effective leadership, Mexico's social and political fabric is unraveling.When dealing with governments with which Washington maintains friendly relations, U.S. diplomats are trained to confine critical comments to private conversations. By venting criticism of Mexican policies in the U.S. press as he prepares to return to private life, U.S. ambassador James Jones signaled Washington's growing concern that quiet diplomacy no longer seems to be making a dent on Mexico City.One key source of worry is Mexico's sharpening inequality. "While some 40 percent or 50 percent of the population is benefiting from the new (economic) freedoms, the other half are not," Jones told the New York Times. In fact, real wages in Mexico are now less than a third of what they were two decades ago, while wealthy Mexicans have multiplied their fortunes through sweetheart deals on the purchase of privatized companies, and subsequent gains on the stock market. All in a society that, according to World Bank statistics, already had one of the widest rich-poor gaps in the world.Exacerbating the growing gulf between wealthy and poor is the divide between north and south. Most of northern Mexico is a vast desert interrupted here and there by fast-growing cities -- Monterrey, Torreon, Ciudad Juarez, Hermosillo, and Tijuana. It is industrial, urban, educated, and modern. Southern Mexico, on the other hand, remains predominantly rural, densely populated, Amerindian in complexion, and lacking the prerequisites for a modern economy, from potable water and sewers to functional literacy.While the benefits of economic development are concentrated in northern Mexico, southern Mexico is being saddled with most of the costs. The end of land reform, combined with competition from cheap U.S. agricultural products, is pushing millions of Amerindian peasants off the land, without creating any jobs for them in the modernizing sector of the economy. As millions are deprived of their traditional marginal existence, armed rebellions are brewing throughout southern Mexico. What began three years ago with the relatively moderate Zapatistas has now spread throughout southern Mexico with the more belligerent Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR).The political gulf is widening as well. While the north pushes ahead on reforms, the south is stagnating. Throughout northern Mexico, the center-right National Action Party (PAN) has been wresting control of state houses and city halls from the PRI, introducing democratic accountability and fighting corruption. In southern Mexico, by contrast, the PRI is clinging to power with ever-more desperate means. PRI power-brokers are resorting to electoral fraud to hold onto governorships, and using the state police and paramilitary groups affiliated with the PRI to intimidate and murder adversaries.President Ernesto Zedillo's decision to put the interests of his party over those of his country is accelerating the slide towards chaos. As effective head of the PRI, he could easily ask corrupt southern governors to stand aside. Instead, he has deployed the army throughout the region, further destabilizing the country to uphold the authority of discredited strongmen.At the federal level, these priorities have resulted in a revolving door at the attorney general's office. Recent attorney generals have been instructed to crack down on corruption and solve the rash of prominent assassinations in recent years. Privately, however, they are instructed to stay clear of key leaders of the government and ruling party, leaving them no choice but to prosecute scapegoats. As judges dismiss cases for lack of evidence, the attorney general's office has become a laughing stock at home and abroad.At this point, Mexico's best hope lies in a change of government. Although a new presidential election won't be held until the year 2000, next year the entire Mexican congress is up for grabs. If the opposition, led by the PAN, can extend its recent victories in state and municipal elections nationwide, there is a slim chance it can institute reforms that will begin to reverse the unravelling now underway.

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