GROUP OF 3 PACT CALLED KEY STEP TOWARD LATIN REGIONAL INTEGRATION

GROUP OF 3 PACT CALLED KEY STEP TOWARD LATIN REGIONAL INTEGRATION

The weekend agreement by leaders of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela to forge a trilateral trade pact marks an important step toward eventual economic integration of the Americas, trade experts here said.

Mexican Commerce Secretary Jaime Serra Puche said the pact among the so- called Group of 3 countries should take effect early next year.The Group of 3 negotiations took on a furious pace after last month's passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) by the U.S. Congress. With two trade pacts under its belt, Mexico is hoping to forge a trade agreement with Costa Rica in coming weeks.

While the Group of 3 market includes about 145 million consumers, the importance of the agreement may be in bringing Colombia and Venezuela in line with Nafta standards.

"I think the main issue here is to be part of the Nafta later on," said Eduardo J. Gallestegui Armella, an international trade and customs attorney in the Mexico City law firm of Gallastegui y Lozano.

The Nafta contains so-called docking provisions that will allow other Latin American nations to tap into Nafta's benefits and create what architects of the accord hope will be an expanding regional free-trade zone.

"The important point here is (Colombia and Venezuela) are taking the Mexican experience as a very important starting point," said Mr. Gallestegui, who said multinational corporations benefit from consistent regional trading rules and are viewing opportunities in those countries "like they did Mexico 10 years ago."

The Group of 3 agreement, which took 29 months to hammer out, covers six fundamental areas: market access, rules of origin, rules of investment, government procurement, trade in services and intellectual-property protection.

Among the Mexican exports expected to gain under the pact are automobiles, auto parts and chemicals. Top Colombia and Venezuelan exports to Mexico are expected to include steel, chemicals, aluminum and some fuels.

The three nations hope to expand their pact to include other countries.

The "existence of an adhesion clause found in the agreement permits the integration into this commercial instrument of other Latin American nations," said the statement of the Secretaria de Comercio y Fomento Industrial, Mexico's commerce agency.

It was not immediately clear whether or not Costa Rica would be folded into the Group of 3 pact or simply brought into a bilateral agreement with Mexico.

Commerce officials in Mexico also want to reduce trade and transport

barriers with neighboring Central American nations, but internal political instability in Guatemala and Nicaragua are complicating regional trade talks.