'Chocolate' vehicles are a political hot potato in Mexico

Politics and illegally imported cars and trucks are making for an unsavory stew in Mexico.

About a dozen leading business organizations in Mexico are taking political action against the Economics Secretariat for its recent lobbying in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for automobile imports.

The bulk of the protesters are car manufacturers, who consider the lobbying a violation of NAFTA, which ends its 15-year grace period in 2009.

The problem is that some 2.5 million cars smuggled in from the U.S. as well as about 120,000 cargo trucks are illegally rolling on Mexican highways. These smuggled vehicles are known as " chocolate" (i.e., black market) vehicles.

What has the business chambers up in arms is that instead of rejecting the Economics Secretariat's proposal for legalization, the 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies are welcoming the move and see it feasible.

"It's all politics," says Jose Cruz Jimenez, president of the Mexicali Chamber of Commerce in Baja California. A car importer by trade, Cruz joins the rest of the protesters against the deputies who want to legalize the "chocolate" cars and trucks.

"It's a business loss in terms of taxes for the government and an unfair trading practice both against us importers and the large manufacturing companies," Cruz says. "This is an electioneering campaign and yielding to these car owners means votes for the politicians."

Recently, "chocolate" car and truck owners have been demanding the legalization of their cars and rigs, protesting through street blockades.

Refugio Munoz, director general of the Mexican Cargo Carriers Chamber (Canacar), says, "Altering NAFTA is unfair and is being promoted by the Economics Secretariat, which introduced this bill. NAFTA clearly says that used cars and trucks can be brought from the U.S. legally in 2009."

But the "chocolates" represent virtually-millions of votes and political parties-need them for next year's elections, which everyone forecasts as being very close.

The Chocolate Car Bill, as it is popularly known, has yet to be discussed and those against it will not be surprised if it passes — but expect President Vicente Fox to veto it.

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