June 30, 2002

Mexico, Central America seek cooperation

                 MERIDA, Mexico (AP) -- Mexican and Central American leaders ended a
                 two-day summit by announcing an ambitious plan to integrate the region,
                 including a $3 billion highway project.

                 The goal of the so-called Plan Puebla Panama's goals is to promote the region's
                 development by integrating its roads, electricity grids and tariff systems, as well as
                 building a gas pipeline from Mexico to Panama.

                 In the meeting that ended Friday in Merida, 620 miles southeast of Mexico City, the
                 region's leaders also condemned terrorism and pledged to improve the defense of
                 human rights.

                 Central American countries plan to open a joint office in Mexico's southern
                 Veracruz state to protect migrant rights, delegates said. Thousands of Central
                 Americans travel through Mexico on their way to the United States, and many
                 report being robbed or mistreated by Mexican officials.

                 Mexican President Vicente Fox, who originally proposed the plan when he took
                 office two years ago, said regional integration "is an imperative need."

                 Mexico is already providing seed money for the construction of highways in
                 Honduras and Nicaragua. Spain is contributing $70 million of $320 million that the
                 Inter-American Development Bank has made available for electricity programs.

                 The plan's proposals include a highway project that is estimated to cost more than
                 $3 billion.

                 Although designed basically for economic development, the plan is being promoted
                 also as a tool to strengthen democratic institutions in Central America.

                 Plan coordinator Florencio Salazar said Central America has overcome armed
                 conflicts and all its nations now choose their leaders democratically. "But political
                 democracy alone does not guarantee the strength and permanence of democratic
                 institutions unless it is accompanied by economic development."

                 Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos said that "only together and integrated in our
                 political plans and programs ... can we be successful in today's world of

                 Some of the objections to the plan originally came from environmental and
                 indigenous groups in southern Mexico.

                 Ambassador Gustavo Iruegas of the Mexican Foreign Ministry said presidents
                 agreed Friday that the interests of indigenous and other minority groups will be

                 Although some observers and possible investors said the plan was not concrete
                 enough yet, others expressed interest.

                 "The state of Missouri has some very major, sophisticated construction
                 infrastructure firms that are taking a real close look at a lot of the infrastructure
                 projects that they are talking about doing," said David W. Eaton, director of
                 Missouri's trade office in Mexico City.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.