Mexico honors Dr. King, but critics say NAFTA was motivator Slain civil rights leader's widow attends ceremony

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- In honor of the nonviolent struggle led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Mexican government last weekend unveiled a statue of the civil rights leader near a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a wealthy neighborhood park.

Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow, was invited by the Mexican government to oversee the ceremony, and she spoke to students at a Mexican college about the effectiveness of nonviolent methods in the pursuit of human rights.


While she spoke, Israel Galan fidgeted in his chair. He is a political science professor who led student demonstrations in Mexico at the same time Dr. King was leading marches through the United States.

The Mexican government responded to each march with violence and in 1968, hundreds of student protesters were killed when soldiers opened fire on them.


"If the government really respected the fight of Martin Luther King, then it would respect the rights of its own citizens," Mr. Galan said recently.

"The government isn't doing this because it cares about human rights," said Mariclaire Acosta, a Mexican human rights advocate. "They are doing this because they need votes in the U.S. Congress to win [NAFTA]."

The North American Free Trade Agreement faces a tough battle in the U.S. Congress, and Mexico has launched the most expensive lobbying campaign ever by a foreign government to win more votes.

In Mexico, there is widespread speculation that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is hoping that this tribute to Dr. King will help open a line of communication with black legislators in the United States, who generally oppose the pact, fearing it would send jobs south of the border. Once the channel is open, dialogue can begin, opinions can be changed and votes can be won.

"I can see what they're trying to do," Henry Espy, mayor of Clarksdale, Miss., said about the Mexican government. Mr. Espy is the brother of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and attended the event at the invitation of Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis.

"All I can say is, they're good. They're a good lobby."

Government officials said the tribute had nothing to do with their initiative to win passage of NAFTA -- although Mrs. King reportedly was paid $15,000 to attend the ceremony, and she was escorted by a Texas state legislator who works as a lobbyist for the Mexican government's NAFTA campaign.

During her visit to Mexico, Mrs. King never mentioned NAFTA. When asked by a student if the United States would consider using trade sanctions to demand that the Mexican government protect the human rights of its citizens, an aide to Mrs. King leaped on stage and declared that she could not speak on such matters.


Reports by international groups, including Amnesty International and Americas Watch, have criticized Mexico for taking weak stands against the persecution of indigenous people, the destruction of the environment, corruption of law enforcement officials and fraudulent elections.

Mr. Galan said it is ironic that the Mexican government was eager to proclaim the integrity of Dr. King's struggle when it has refused to honor the memory of those students it massacred in 1968 in a neighborhood named Tlatelolco.

The exact death toll remains a mystery, as does much of what happened in Tlatelolco. Government files remain closed. Incomplete accounts appear in school textbooks. And there has never been a monument erected to honor the peaceful struggle of the students, who were demanding an end to police repression and fraudulent elections as well as better working conditions for laborers.

"The double standards of the Mexican government are legendary," political science professor Sergio Aguayo said about the tribute to Dr. King.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the massacre, former leaders of the Mexican student movement will erect a monument to those killed in Tlatelolco.

"The government will never do it," Mr. Galan said. "So we will do it."