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Work of Mexican marines may score political points

BILOXI, Miss.—The Mexican marines who landed on the Mississippi coast as part of an unprecedented hurricane relief effort brought 300 specialized troops eager to rescue victims, administer medical treatment and even help locals recover the dead.

Instead, the camouflage-clothed marines, wearing blue vests with the word "MARINA" printed in white letters across their chests, spent most of their five days here handing out water bottles, clearing up debris from a school and moving supply boxes.

Their voyage to the Gulf Coast nonetheless could score much-needed political points for Mexican President Vicente Fox, who's spent years trying to get the attention of President Bush and Congress in his persistent push for immigration laws favorable to Mexicans in the United States.

Fox offered his marines shortly after Hurricane Katrina blew a disastrous path through southern Mississippi and Louisiana, as part of an international relief effort that includes troops from Canada and the Netherlands.

The Mexican marines, who departed for home on Wednesday, sailed to Biloxi aboard the 440-foot Papaloapan, an amphibious troop-landing ship with a mobile hospital, an ambulance and two helicopters. The ship had originally headed to New Orleans, where the crew was ready to help with search-and-rescue activities, but it was diverted to the Mississippi coast, where the need for search-and-rescue assistance and emergency medical treatment was less dire.

The relief effort marked the first time since the Mexican-American War in 1846 that Mexican troops were assigned north of the Rio Grande.

"Fox wants to do whatever he can to make sure immigration reform doesn't fall by the wayside," said Princeton University sociology professor Douglas Massey, who studies out-migration from Mexico. "And sending troops to help a neighborhood in need is a goodwill gesture, of course, but it also helps boost Mexico's image."

But politics was furthest from the minds of the marines, who worked side by side with the U.S. Navy before departing for home.

At Biloxi's First Baptist Church, which is doubling as a massive Red Cross relief center, two physicians sorted boxes of prescription medicine, a radio specialist helped load boxes onto pushcarts, and several marines distributed plastic water bottles to motorists in a drive-through lane formed by boxes of supplies.

"We hope that our assistance will be as valuable as the help provided by rescuers," said Dr. Eduardo Valdes Gonzalez, a surgeon. His role, and that of Dr. Jose Manuel Secaida Arredondo, a pediatrician, was limited in the Sunday school room turned pharmacy, because they lacked English skills to read the specifications on medications.

The marines in the parking lot took on various duties, from taking canned foods to cars to unloading trailers, to moving hamburger buns from one crate to another.

Marine Lamberto Escobar, who worked the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, gripped the wheelchair of 75-year-old Betty Price, waiting in a shady area to push her to her car.

"This time the job has been easy," Escobar said. "But on other occasions we've had a very difficult assignment, digging for bodies and transporting the injured."

Price, a Gulfport, Miss., resident whose home sustained major water damage through the roof, was grateful for the help. "That's the way it's supposed to be; when you help somebody, the Lord will bless you."

And the irony of Mexican troops in the United States wasn't lost on the few American relief workers of Mexican descent.

"It's so unusual they're coming to the United States," said Andres "Andy" Hernandez, a First Baptist Church member who oversaw the unloading of the trailers. "Usually it's the other way around."

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(Garcia reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-MEXICO

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