Drugs Surge From Mexico As US Hunts For Solution
WITH larger quantities of a wider variety of illegal drugs pouring across the US-Mexico border than before, President Clinton has a tough decision before him. Tomorrow, the president who bailed Mexico out of last year's peso crisis will announce his decision on whether a southern neighbor and NAFTA partner is a worthy ally in the war against drug trafficking.Skip to next paragraph
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As on every March 1, the president must recommend to Congress what major drug-supplying countries are making progress against the illegal trade. This election year, the annual process called certification has become a political football, with Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole calling on Mr. Clinton to cut Mexico from the US list.
Yet decertification would undercut Mexico's recovery by denying access to international loans and assistance just as American dollars are working to stabilize Mexico's weak economy. Mr. Clinton seems unlikely to knock struggling Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon when many American officials acknowledge his antidrug efforts.
As the political debate burns on, border agents are confronting a drug trade that every day grows more violent.
An alert crackles over the Border Patrol agents' radios: Four ''mules'' - humans carrying large bundles on their backs - have been spotted by cameras. They are passing through the fairways of a Nogales, Ariz., golf course near the US-Mexico border.
With suspicions high that they are illegal aliens carrying drugs into the United States, Border Patrol agents swing into action. Racing to the scene over roadless terrain in four-wheel-drive vehicles, a half-dozen agents coordinate their approaches by radio and swoop down on the suspects.
Within minutes, the hillside is washed by the vehicles' high-intensity spotlights. All but one of the mules manage to escape into the night, but leave behind four large bags of marijuana. Total weight, 52 pounds; street value, about $42,000.
That incident, which occurred in December, reflects the drug activity taking place along the border day by day, night by night. Whether marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or ''speed'' (methamphetamines), the drugs are coming in by foot here, or in car trunks and the false floors of semitrailer trucks.
The drugs are carried or driven across a little at a time by the equivalent of an army of ants: people who will always be available to take a job for some good cash.
It's a system Mexico's drug lords employed first at the behest of Colombia's cartels and now increasingly use on their own. It works. Rather than send giant shipments that would mean bigger trouble and disruption if stopped, thousands of small loads are sent, with confiscated goods figured into the cost of doing business.
It is the operating system of a multibillion-dollar-business that has made the Mexican border the major entryway for drugs into the United States. The US is spending more money, deploying more people, and dedicating more technology to stanching the drug flow.
On the backs of the little guy
''What makes the Mexican system work is the guy at the bottom,'' says Phil Jordan, until January the director of the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), the intelligence arm of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). ''He's the guy who takes the most chances and earns the least, but the whole operation rides on his back.''
In a modern building dedicated to DEA agent Enrique Camarera Salazar - tortured to death in Mexico by drug lords in 1985 - EPIC agents explain a diagram of what they call the Mexican drug-trafficking federation. At the top are the patrones, the five men who control the border drug trade from Tijuana to Matamoros. One of the five, Juan Garcia Abrego, the brutal head of the Matamoros, Mexico-based Gulf cartel, was arrested in January and turned over to US officials.