Last week's revelation by the Mexican government that it had arrested its top antidrug official because he was on the payroll of the nation's largest and most vicious drug cartel came at a bad time. It was just 15 days before President Clinton has to decide whether or not to "certify" that Mexico (and other producing and transit countries) cooperates fully with the United States in the fight against narcotics. Rather than a cause for denying Mexico certification, which would leave that country open to a variety of US economic sanctions, the events underscore the deep flaws in the certification process.
In the first instance, it is almost always misleading to classify a country, in a cut-and-dried fashion, as either cooperating or not cooperating. Most of the countries where it really matters are doing both. Lack of full cooperation may indicate bad faith, but it also may reflect honest differences of opinion on how to address the problems. Some agencies of a foreign government may be collaborating effectively while others may be corrupt, inefficient, or stubborn. That is the case in both Mexico and Colombia - the two countries that supply the US with most of its drugs.
Convincing arguments can be found for certifying or decertifying either of them, but it is a waste of time for US and foreign officials to focus efforts on marshaling those arguments, on making simplistic black-white distinctions. What is needed, instead, are careful and nuanced analyses of the drug problems facing particular countries in order to develop constructive policies and programs. Certification turns the analysts into advocates.
Second, certification often forces the application of a double standard. Under any circumstance, it is virtually impossible for the US to consider decertifying Mexico. Given the degree of economic interdependence between the two nations, we know that decertification could seriously harm the Mexican economy, which, in turn, would damage the economies of many US states and communities.
Only two years ago, the US lent Mexico $13 billion to halt the collapse of its economy - because the US has such a large stake in that country's economic success. It is absurd to think that we would - or should - now put Mexico's recovery at risk by decertifying its antinarcotics performance. We, of course, have no such stake in Colombia's economy, or that of any other Latin American nation. Our treatment of Mexico is correct, and should be the norm. We should not allow the single issue of drugs to dominate US bilateral relations with any country, overshadowing all other matters.
Third, certification is self-defeating, producing more antagonism than cooperation between the US and other countries in the battle against drugs. It is true that the Colombian government, following US decertification last year, stepped up its efforts to satisfy US demands for tougher antidrug measures, but this kind of forced collaboration is unlikely to be enduring and will generate long-term resentment. It almost certainly would not work in Mexico.
Indeed, decertification of Mexico would probably end prospects of productive cooperation for some time - on drugs and other issues. Effective antidrug partnerships with Latin America are more apt to emerge if the US stops judging the antinarcotics efforts of other countries and "decertifying" and penalizing those that are not performing satisfactorily according to Washington's standards. No cooperative approach can work if the US insists on the right to make unilateral judgments about its partners and then to impose sanctions on them.
Even though it was exposed by the Mexican government, the alliance between Mexico's chief antidrug official and its biggest drug kingpin was a damaging blow to the narcotics-control efforts of both the Mexican and US governments - and set back cooperation between them. But the certification process is doing far greater damage to antidrug cooperation in the hemisphere.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.