Mexico makes free trade a cop-out

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a shock for the Rogers family. Two weeks after it had been stolen from a parking lot in southern California, their 1989 Chevrolet Suburban suddenly flickered up on the news - riddled with bullet holes.

They were even more surprised when they found out what had happened. The vehicle was being driven not by criminals - but by Mexican police, engaged in a gun battle with officers from another force in the nearby Mexican border city of Tijuana. There were bodies everywhere.

Border relations between the United States and Mexico - already strained by drug- running and illegal immigration - have been soured by a fresh problem: US officials say there is mounting evidence that police in Mexico, their new partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, have been stretching free trade too far.

More and more stolen US cars are turning up on the other side of the border in police hands. US officials say some officers reportedly keep confiscated cars; others even send aspirinas - paid thieves - north to steal vehicles. Trendy and high-powered Jeeps, Cherokees, and Ford Explorers are particularly popular.

The most graphic example came earlier this month, when a posse of Mexican federal officers set out to arrest a state official on corruption charges. Dozens of gun-toting officers were shown on television setting off with their new prisoner in a convoy of four- wheel drive vehicles. Subsequent checks revealed that 30 were stolen; some still even carried California plates.

'We have to take care of this problem,' Brian Bilbray, a San Diego county supervisor complained to the Los Angeles Times. 'I think all of us who wanted to encourage free trade across the border didn't mean this kind of free trade.'

Police officers in Houston, Texas, recently complained that every time they sent an undercover officer into Mexico in an illegal vehicle, it was picked up by a police officer. And several years ago a US diplomat saw his car being driven around Mexico City. A federal judge was at the wheel.