Frustration over Mexico

THE frustration of the US State Department, which went public last week with charges that official Mexican corruption is hobbling efforts in the war on drugs, is understandable. Working through channels hasn't got the United States very far.

But it's not likely that public criticism, in the form of a State Department report and a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will spark much progress by the Mexican government, either, and certainly not without the price of greater anti-Americanism.

Charges of official involvement in the drug trade will not help Mexico's case in Washington or before the international bankers. Still, Mexico has tremendous leverage over the United States. Nowhere else on the planet does a first-world country share a 2,000-mile border with a third-world country. The US cannot afford to have Mexico, with its 80 million people, many of them already slipping through the porous border, turn into another Iran.

And so, however much the US yearns to see Mexico discipline itself into honesty, efficiency, and prosperity, the US cannot afford to let Mexico reach the end of its rope.

This is not to underestimate the desire within the US and the international community to see Mexico gain control on the drug front and fiscally, especially given the way Mexico fell -- or jumped -- off the austerity wagon in the fall of 1984. Among the structural economic reforms being sought are the reduction or scrapping of state subsidies and price controls, building up of hard-currency reserves, greater openness to private investment, and Mexican entry into GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Mexico could have entered GATT on much more favorable terms in 1980 than are available today. Now Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid has promised to bring the country into GATT, which he can do virtually by executive decree, by the end of the year. That timetable is probably wishful thinking, but it does indicate the President's priorities.

The US also wants to see clear evidence that clamping down on drugs is a Mexican government priority. Mexicans counter that without US demand for drugs, there would be no traffic. Still, there are troublesome signs, particularly with the involvement of the Mexican military in the enforcement of drug laws. Unfortunately, there is a Latin American pattern of military involvement in enforcement leading to military involvement in drug dealing.

As President de la Madrid's six-year term enters its final third, it should not be surprising that corruption is reported on the upswing, as officials weave their golden parachutes in preparation for a likely bailout from government. The present administration has been cleaner than its predecessors, however, and should be given credit accordingly.

For all its problems, Mexico has too much going for it to be written off, by the US or anyone else, as incapable of putting its house in order. Progress may be gradual rather than swift. But Mexico needs to be held to a high standard and encouraged in its efforts for reform.

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