July 17, 1998

Central American leaders vie for closer ties with Mexico

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) -- Leaders from seven Central American nations met Friday with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to discuss ways to strengthen the region's economies and improve political ties.

Delegates from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador intensified negotiations for a joint free-trade agreement with Mexico. Mexican Commerce Secretary Herminio Blanco said he expects the agreement will be signed before the end of this year.

At least 50 accords on immigration, fighting drugs, education, technical exchanges, health, transportation and cultural development also were expected to be signed at the one-day Tuxtla III conference.

Central America had a common market from 1960 until 1969, but it collapsed after a brief war between Honduras and El Salvador.

Prolonged leftist guerrilla and anti-guerrilla wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala further damaged the region's economy.

The first Tuxtla conference, concentrating on economic recovery and closer ties, was organized by Mexico and took place in 1991 in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Mexico views the expanded Central American region with its population of nearly 40 million people as a potentially lucrative market.

Attending the summit were Presidents Armando Calderon Sol of El Salvador, Alvaro Arzu of Guatemala, Carlos Flores Facusse of Honduras, Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua and Miguel Angel Rodriguez of Costa Rica. Belize was represented by Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel and Panama's Ernesto Perez Balladares sent a special representative.