Pubdate: Mon, 11 Dec 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Sam Quinones, Copley News Service


Fox Targets Corruption, But Checkpoints Will Stay

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants living in California will drive 
home to Mexico this month to spend Christmas with their families.

It should be a joyous occasion.

But as they reach their country, they will brace themselves to be 
humiliated, harassed and extorted at police checkpoints.

These checkpoints, on the main highways in northern Mexico, are ostensibly 
intended to search for drugs and guns. But immigrants, as well as residents 
and legislators of these states, say federal anti-drug police from Mexico's 
Department of Justice -- known as the PGR -- use their undisputed power at 
the checkpoints to shake down travelers.

Officers, they say, demand bribes to let the immigrants continue on their 
way. Some people have been forced to turn over televisions or stereos that 
they were taking home as gifts.

"The agents at the checkpoints and roadblocks know that immigrants are 
bringing back money and gifts," said Sergio Duran, a disc jockey on Los 
Angeles radio station MEJOR 93.5 and spokesman for the Federation of 
Zacatecan Clubs, representing about 60 groups of immigrants from the state 
of Zacatecas residing in the Los Angeles area. "They know they can screw them."

This month gives Vicente Fox, who was sworn in as president Dec. 1, a 
visible opportunity to change the way immigrants are received when they 
come home.

For many years, immigrants have been treated as traitors to their country 
for moving to the United States in search of work. Government officials 
have made much of the discrimination Mexicans receive in the United States. 
But immigrants say some of the most callous and brutal treatment they 
receive is at the hands of police officers in Mexico, particularly at the 
isolated roadblocks.

"When we enter Mexican territory, the trial begins and we pray to all the 
saints for protection," said Luis Magana, a farm-worker organizer in 
Stockton who is from the western Mexican state of Michoacan.

"You have more civil rights guarantees as an undocumented worker when 
you're arrested by the Border Patrol than you do with those Mexican 
officers," he said. "They view us as smugglers of contraband merchandise 
when we enter the country and drug smugglers when we're leaving."

When a reporter recently visited one checkpoint in northern Sinaloa, PGR 
agents confiscated his film, saying the area was a "federal zone" that 
could not be photographed.

"Don't you have enough work in the United States with the election up 
there?" asked one agent wearing sunglasses and a belt buckle emblazoned 
with an assault rifle. He didn't give his name.

The reporter's taxi driver was interrogated, and the driver's patriotism 
was impugned because he brought foreigners to the checkpoint.

Fox has promised to change all that. He says he'll visit border crossings 
before Christmas to welcome immigrants home.

In doing so, he'll be fulfilling an important campaign promise. Moreover, 
it is part of his economic policy. Fox has said he hopes to persuade 
immigrants to invest in businesses and generate jobs within Mexico.

Academics and observers say the dollars immigrants send home are vital to 
the country's economy. For example, Zacatecans in the United States -- more 
than a million -- send home $1.3 million a day, according to state estimates.

Fox says his government won't remove the checkpoints because they are part 
of Mexico's anti-drug effort. Officers at the checkpoints also search for 
guns, which generally are illegal in Mexico.

"We have to combine two things: a decent and nice treatment of the people 
who return to our country, but we also have to be firm in the fight against 
contraband," Fox said at a recent news conference. "It's not about removing 
checkpoints, it's about cleansing them of corruption."

Magana said his Organization of California Farmworkers has a program 
documenting abuse by Mexican officials at border crossings and checkpoints.

With little publicity, Magana said, the program receives 40 to 60 
complaints every Christmas season about abuse by Mexican checkpoint officers.

"It becomes a regular tollbooth for immigrants," said Manuel Clouthier, 
owner of the newspaper Noroeste  in Sinaloa, a major drug-producing state 
on the Pacific coast with two PGR checkpoints. "I don't know why (the 
immigrants) even want to come back. They're real martyrs."

Juan Hernandez, Fox's new director of immigrant affairs, said he will be 
visiting PGR checkpoints in various states. "We have a few programs we're 
going to put in place" to combat corruption at the checkpoints, Hernandez said.

A group of state legislators from the state of San Luis Potosi recently 
marched to Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border, calling for an end to the 
checkpoints on Highway 57, which runs from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey. They 
planned an additional rally in Nuevo Laredo with legislators from four 
other states -- Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon -- calling 
for an end to the roadblocks and increased punishment for officers who 
shake down returning immigrants.

Evaristo Balderas, one of the legislators who organized the march, said 
immigrants have reported paying between $20 and $400 in bribes.

Balderas said one immigrant, living in Chicago, told him he arrived at the 
border with $2,000, a television, a VCR and a cassette player, and had to 
give almost all of it to officers at checkpoints on his way to San Luis Potosi.

"By the time he got home, he said he had only $500 and none of the 
merchandise he'd brought," Balderas said.

Stories are similar on Mexico's West Coast. In Sinaloa, residents are 
outraged at the abuses they say are committed at the state's two checkpoints.

One of the checkpoints is about 40 miles from Los Mochis, and is known, 
aptly in the feeling of many Sinaloans, as El Desengano  -- The 
Disappointment -- for a nearby village of the same name.
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