Neighbors Nonetheless

Mexico and the United States are having a none-too-neighborly argument over a US-engineered "sting" operation that ended in the indictment of more than two dozen Mexican bankers and three Mexican banks.

Mexico says the operation violated its sovereignty, since US Customs agents worked undercover there without the knowledge of that country's government. Washington, for its part, emphasizes the operation's dampening impact on money laundering, by which North American narcotics profits are filtered back to Latin American cartels. Secrecy, the US contends, was a matter of necessity.

Both sides have a point. Unquestionably, the US operation struck at the financial heart of the drug trade. As the recent UN conference on the global commerce in narcotics made clear, money-laundering must be attacked. Banks that help mask the origins of drug money are crucial allies of the traffickers. And Mexico manifestly has problems with narco-corruption in its justice system.

But those facts hardly allay Mexico's deep-rooted concerns about sovereignty. The idea of US agents entrapping Mexican citizens on Mexican soil has accomplished the near impossible - uniting Mexican politicians of all stripes in nationalistic outrage.

In retrospect, the US could have shown more sensitivity in announcing the sting's outcome. Some Mexican officials could have been on hand to lend the appearance, at least, of partnership. Mexico, with growing rates of drug use, shares with the US a desire to win the war against drugs.

The initial official response in Mexico was actually positive, conceding that the results were good even if the tactics were questionable. But offended sovereignty soon eclipsed all else.

In the interest of calm reflection, let's consider a central reality. The partnership between the US and Mexico rests on a solid foundation of common interests - including the goal of rooting out narcotics trafficking.

To move toward that goal, Mexicans and Americans must share information and plans. The results of the laundering sting aside, it set a poor precedent for continuing cross-border cooperation. Safeguards should be built into the communications structure to reduce the likelihood of leaks that endanger undercover agents and informants.

Finally, Washington can sharpen its awareness of Mexican political sensitivities - a need that has been exacerbated by the long absence of a US ambassador in Mexico City.

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