Mexico plays down quake as toll reaches 66

President Ernesto Zedillo yesterday declared one of Mexico's prime tourist playgrounds a disaster area after at least 66 people, and possibly many more, were killed in Mexico's worst earthquake since 1985. But he went ahead with his first state visit to Washington, where he was greeted at the White House by President Bill Clinton yesterday morning.

The government sought to play down the extent of Monday's quake in resorts along the Pacific coast, but it could be a crippling blow to tourism at a time when the struggling economy badly needs the income.

The government sent troops to help with rescue work after Monday's tremor, measured at 7.6 on the Richter scale.

Worst hit was the upmarket resort of Manzanillo, 325 miles west of Mexico City.The seven-storey Costa Real hotel collapsed completely, trapping 30 guests and 27 employees as guests took breakfast just after 9.30am.

Reuters reported that a 21-year-old honeymooner, Carlos Jimenez, sat with his head in his hands waiting for rescuers to bring out his bride. He had seen her buried under a huge pillar, apparently dead.

Seven police officers were killed when a police station collapsed near Manzanillo. Hotels were also damaged in another resort, Puerto Vallarta, but none collapsed.

Mr Zedillo, under fire for his handling of the economic crisis, the unsolved murders of two top politicians and a cardinal, and alleged government links with drug traffickers, was immediately criticised for going ahead with his Washington trip.

Possibly thinking of future tourist trade, he described the disaster as "not of unmanageable magnitude". That reminded Mexicans of the words of President Miguel de la Madrid in September 1985, after at least 6,000 people, and possibly up to 10,000, were killed in an earthquake registering 8.1 on the Richter scale. He declared that Mexico did not need outside help. He later had to retract that statement.

After being greeted by Mr Clinton on the South Lawn, Mr Zedillo said they would discuss illegal immigration, Mexico's economy and drug trafficking. More than 70 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the US comes through Mexico, mostly from Colombia. Asian gangs use Mexico as a transit point for heroin and it is also a major source of marijuana.

A Colombian news report at the weekend said Mr Zedillo's election campaign last year had been partly financed by Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel. Adding that Mr Zedillo was probably unaware of such funding, the report said the information had come from a cartel informant in detention in the US. Mr Zedillo's government and the US Drug Enforcement Administration denied the report.