Ignoring Mexico's drug problem

Policy: The Clinton administration overlooks the fact that in the war on drugs south of the border, the drugs appear to be winning.

March 12, 2000|By Rick Rockwell

CLOSE YOUR EYES, and you can hear the message in the media. You've heard the words: peace, prosperity, promise.

Now try these: deception, drugs, death.

Is it any wonder politicians and pundits are ignoring one of the most insidious problems that will face the next president just assuredly as it has faced presidents for the past 25 years? The issue: a losing effort in the war on drugs south of the border.

In a move that was little noticed, the Clinton administration acted this month to reaffirm U.S. strategy in anti-drug efforts with Mexico. The process is called certification. The president is required by law to certify to Congress that Mexico (along with 25 other nations) is cooperating in the drug war. Decertification would mean restrictions on U.S. assistance and economic sanctions. The administration's report noted that Mexico's overall anti-drug performance has not improved, but the country was still certified.

This year, as in most years, when Mexico was certified, Republicans led by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina protested. They fired off a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. The letter noted, "There has been no major progress in uprooting the drug cartels that do business with virtual impunity in Mexico."

Just before certification, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, seemed to agree with the critics. During an unguarded moment while speaking in Mexico City to alumni of the University of Southern California, the ambassador said, "The fact is that the headquarters of the drug-trafficking world are now in Mexico. Just as the headquarters, the main base, of the Mafia was in Sicily, now the main bases of drug traffickers are in other countries, and Mexico is one of them."

ka-10 Mexican politicians and newspapers expressed shock and disappointment with the ambassador's frank words. Isn't the United States responsible for its drug habits? Feeding the United States' enormous illegal drug appetite -- estimated at $57 billion by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) --keeps the cartels in business. The government's certification report admits that as much as 60 percent of the cocaine from South America flowing into the United States is routed through Mexico. So, at some point, these illegal shipments are supervised by the powerful Mexican cartels.


Despite an internecine gang war, the cartels have grown more powerful in the past decade. The Tijuana cartel assassinated that border city's police chief less than a week before certification. The hit occurred on the highway where gunmen from the cartel assassinated another Tijuana police chief six years ago. The latest demonstration of violence by the cartels is just one of a string of hits aimed at law enforcement officials, prosecutors and journalists stretching back at least a decade.

As the saying goes in Mexico, people have two choices: plata or plomo, silver or lead. Those unwilling to take a bribe from the cartels end up with a bullet instead.

Not surprisingly, last year's certification report noted the existence of "persistent levels of corruption" in the Mexican government. However, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has made fighting corruption and drug trafficking a centerpiece of his administration. As Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, likes to point out, despite corruption, Mexico is investing $1 billion in its anti-narcotics fight.

The debate over certification comes at a delicate time. Virtually unnoticed in the United States, Mexico also is preparing for presidential elections this year. The ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, by its Spanish acronym), which has ruled the country for more than 70 years, faces a tough challenge from opposition forces. Still, the status quo looks to be headed toward another victory.

Decertification might have an impact on that process and would hurt U.S.-Mexican relations. In a country where politicians and patriots still remind the populace about a war lost to the United States 150 years ago, pointed criticism of Mexico's problems with drugs and corruption could also curdle strategic business relationships.

What Mexicans resent is not only that certification is insulting and demeaning, but also that it is a modern version of Uncle Sam's economic big stick at work in Latin America. The political and economic aftershocks of decertification in Colombia during the 1990s serve as stark examples for nations that might want to ignore the process.

Certification is another example of the Clinton era's go-along-to-get-along foreign policy, as opposed to bold strokes. The boldest stroke would be to kill the meaningless and divisive certification process altogether.

For all the Republican invective that is part of the process, Congress is unlikely to overturn the president's certification before the April 1 deadline. Attempts at doing so have failed in the past.

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