MEXICO CITY -- The National Human Rights Commission has announced that its telephones and offices were bugged at a time when its chairman was in Washington touting Mexico's human rights record.
Yesterday, independent human rights groups here and in the United States assailed the bugging as an attempt by the government to "chill" the testimony of witnesses whose views might put the Salinas administration in a bad light.
The human rights commission, in its press announcement late Tuesday, stopped short of accusing the government of involvement in the bugging, although there have been several such cases in the past.
Mexico's questionable human rights record has come under scrutiny in the U.S. Congress by foes of a proposed free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Congress is expected to vote in May on whether to deny President Bush the authority to negotiate the pact using a system that limits it to a final vote on the trade accord. Without the "fast track" method, administration officials have said, the agreement would be impossible.
The administration and the government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari are in the midst of a public relations campaign to save the "fast track" authority, which now appears to be in jeopardy in the House.
The Salinas administration sent the human rights commission chairman to Washington Monday and Tuesday in hopes of allaying fears about Mexico's rights record and to express its concern about the mistreatment of Mexican migrants in the United States.
Jorge Carpizo McGregor, the commission chairman, met with Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh and Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, as well as key congressional staff members, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy said in a telephone interview.
Upon returning to Mexico City yesterday, Mr. Carpizo McGregor declined to be interviewed at the airport, saying he had laryngitis.
President Salinas created the commission 10 months ago after the slaying May 21 of Norma Corona, a human rights activist who was investigating the murders of Venezuelans, allegedly at the hands of the federal judicial police, Mexico's equivalent of the FBI.
The commission has since received more than 2,000 complaints from witnesses who, in many cases, were risking their lives.
In its press bulletin announcing the telephone buggings, the commission's board of directors noted: "It is worrisome that the aspects of delicate cases will come to light . . . or that they will be brought to a close before they can be completed."
The commission board did not specify where the buggings took place, other than to say at its "diverse offices." The commission's three offices are in Mexico City.