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September 1998, Volume 5, Number 9

Mexico, Central America

Many US border communities continue to complain about the $45 cost to their Mexican customers to obtain the new US border-crossing card--the new cards have features designed to thwart counterfeiting. In addition to the US fee, many Mexicans in border areas must obtain Mexican passports to present to US consulates; Mexican passports typically cost more than $45.

Politics. In state elections on August 2, 1998, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) kept the governorships of Oaxaca and Veracruz, and lost for the first time to the National Action Party (PAN) in Aguascalientes. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) challenged the Oaxaca results. Oaxaca, with 3.2 million residents, includes 570 of Mexico's 3,000 municipos, or counties, and the PRD argued that there was voter fraud at the county level.

NAFTA. The US in August 1998 filed a second request for formal consultations with Mexico after the US National Administrative Office (NAO) issued a report concluding that thugs were hired to intimidate workers before a non-secret vote on union representation at two Itapsa auto parts plant near Mexico City owned by Echlin Inc., based in Branford, Connecticut in September 1997. The report concluded: "a group of workers who attempted to exercise their right to freedom of association were subjected to retaliation by their employer and the established union in the workplace, including threats of physical harm and dismissal."

Under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, each country's labor department reviews complaints that another NAFTA member did not enforce its own labor laws. Eight of the nine complaints filed with the US NAO against Mexico since 1994 have alleged violations of the right to organize independent unions. The complaints allege, for example, that the government does not protect workers who want to form or join unions independent of the PRI-affiliated confederation.

Central America. There are 500,000 to 700,000 Nicaraguans working in Costa Rica, half of them illegally; Nicaraguans are at least 15 percent of the three million Costa Rican residents. Most Nicaraguans in Costa Rica are farm, construction or service workers.

Costa Rica has stepped up its border patrols in 1998, and more than 1,000 Nicaraguans a month--termed rechazados or rejects--are prevented from entering Costa Rica. Many Nicaraguans try to slip down the Rio San Juan to Costa Rica from the Nicaraguan city of San Carlos to earn wages that are six times higher than in Nicaragua. Most of the coyotes in San Carlos charge migrants $3 to be dropped off on the Costa Rican side of the border before the boat reaches the city of El Castillo. Smuggling peaks in August, before the coffee harvest begins in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua signed an agreement regulating seasonal migration in 1998. Nicaraguans with work permits enter Costa Rica at the well-regulated western border at Penas Blancas on the Pan-American Highway. Many Nicaraguans are of the opinion that "Costa Ricans do not want to legalize [Nicaraguan] workers because then they would have to pay them their fringe benefits."

Juanita Darling, "Nicaraguans seeking work are finding it harder to sneak into Costa Rica as patience wears thin," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1998.