The sting Mexico can't forget

June 29, 1998|By M. Delal Baer

MORE THAN one person has his nose out of joint about this," says one drug official of Casablanca, the undercover operation mounted on Mexico soil by U.S. Customs and the Department of Justice without the authorization of the Mexican government. The sting netted 167 people, including 26 Mexican bankers, on charges of money laundering.

Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the czar of the U.S. anti-narcotics effort, found out about the operation on television. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was kept out of the loop and complained bitterly to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who himself is said to have been informed about the operation only a few months ago, even though the investigation was initiated three years ago by the Los Angeles branch of Customs. The result is the most serious crisis in U.S.-Mexican relations since the Drug Enforcement Administration kidnapped Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Mexican implicated in the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.

The Casablanca incident occurs at a time when constructive voices are increasingly drowned out by a neo-populist coalition hurling rocks south of the border; by a relentless torrent of harsh U.S. news coverage of Mexico and by an ever more vitriolic certification process in the U.S. Congress. For the average Mexican, the collective harangue of many members of Congress has fused into one hostile and threatening picture of the United States. Casablanca is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

'I'm sorry' not enough

Although President Clinton and his Cabinet rushed to make apologies to their Mexican counterparts, "I'm sorry" was not enough for Mexico's foreign-relations minister, Rosario Green. She threatened to indict the U.S. Customs officers who conducted undercover operations on Mexican soil without permission and to begin extradition proceedings. Under Mexican law, a sting is considered illegal entrapment.

Mexico's escalation of the conflict left senior White House officials stunned and wondering whether or not the Mexicans know who their friends are in Washington. Mr. Clinton has many flaws, but if there is one area in which he has behaved as a statesman, it has been in U.S.-Mexico relations. He has taken it on the chin for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the peso crisis and has defended bilateral anti-drug efforts. But it may be especially difficult for Mr. Clinton to go to the mat to defend bilateral relations against critics in Congress, particularly Republican critics in an election season, if the Mexicans are sticking it in the U.S. eye.

The dance of injured pride and face-saving seemed to end at the U.N. summit on drugs. After delivering a blistering speech criticizing U.S. unilateralism and proposing a U.N.-led, global certification process, President Ernesto Zedillo met privately with Mr. Clinton to alleviate frictions. But lingering tensions surfaced in Ms. Albright's closing briefing, at which she warned Mexico against pursuing the extradition of U.S. agents.

Meanwhile, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced a resolution urging Mr. Clinton to defend Customs agents against any extradition effort, and some congressional staffers say it will pass if it reaches the floor. This is an ominous prospect given that wavering senators, who will have to vote on the matter of certification in nine months, may wonder how they can support certification when the Mexicans seem determined to make themselves obnoxious.

Mexican calculations go beyond Casablanca to include the possibility that certification next year may not be winnable or winnable at an unacceptably high price. The prospect that Congress may overturn a presidential recommendation to certify Mexico is looming. Even if a presidential veto were exercised and sustained, such a victory would be Pyrrhic. "We have to inoculate ourselves," explains one Mexican foreign ministry official, who acknowledges that the government is considering a variety of contingencies. The threat to investigate U.S. agents is just one sign that the Mexican government is contemplating new options in anticipation of U.S. hostility. Mexico is approaching tTC turning point where the political cost of subjecting itself to U.S. imprecations in the name of cooperation may be higher than the cost of alienating the United States. Mexico's presidential candidate selection season will begin early in 1999, and continued confrontation feeds a nationalist backlash that aides candidacies hostile to the United States.

Progress in drug war

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