Mexico: To certify or not to certify? Drug scandal: Clinton seal of approval likely as prelude to state visit.

February 25, 1997

HOW SATISFYING it would be if President Clinton were to deny Mexico certification as an ally in the anti-drug war because the keeper of its chicken coop has been accused of collaboration with the fox. How satisfying -- and how wrong.

Because Congress insists on forcing presidents to be moral arbiters to the world, U.S. diplomacy is put on the rack annually as it tries to rate other nations on their human rights and narcotics records. For years, granting normal trading status to China has been a constant embarrassment. Now this practice is putting strains on U.S. relations with Mexico, a nation that impacts U.S. society more than any other.

The latest scandal erupted last week when Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, only two months in office as Mexico's anti-drug czar, was arrested on charges of collaborating with traffickers. Official Washington, including its intelligence community, professed utter surprise and annoyance. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. anti-drug czar, had briefed his Mexican counterpart only a few weeks earlier after describing him as "a guy of impeccable integrity."

Timing could hardly have been worse for Mr. Clinton. Until the Gutierrez case broke, he was expected to give Mexico his seal of approval by next Saturday's deadline -- this, a precursor to a state visit to Mexico in April. The president probably will stay on course, as well he should, on the theory that Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo earned good marks by having the guts to arrest his hand-picked general.

Cries of "double standard" are already being heard because Mr. Clinton is also expected to decertify Colombia despite its efforts to fight mighty drug cartels. If Colombia, why not Mexico? Why not a Mexico that has become the conduit for 75 percent of the drugs moving from South America into the lush U.S. market?

The reasons are grounded in the geo-political reality that Mexico lies across the Rio Grande and Colombia does not; that the worse the Mexican economy, the greater is the flow of illegal immigrants into this country; that Mexico and the U.S. are inextricably bound in a trade partnership symbolized by NAFTA; that the erosion of the Mexican political system is a security threat Washington cannot ignore.

Although the U.S. has failed to check its own drug consumption, which supplies the billions financing foreign drug producers and traffickers, it must keep up the anti-drug crusade. This effort is compromised by a hypocritical certification system that should be junked forthwith.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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