Mexican drug case frustrates US

A supersensitive issue in United States-Mexican relations resurfaced last week when the US Justice Department indicted nine Mexican citizens in the 1985 murder of US drug-enforcement agent Enrique Camarena. The Camarena case, which still languishes unresolved in Mexican courts, is more than a symbol of the corrupt, violent world of drug traffickers. For many US officials and legislators, the slow, secretive, and inconclusive court process is also evidence of Mexico's inability - or unwillingness - to attack drugs and corruption head on.

According to narcotics experts on both sides of the border, however, to resolve the issue requires not only fighting drug trafficking more efficiently in Mexico, but also understanding the sharp differences in public perceptions and legal processes that exist in the two countries.

Among Mexicans, it is not considered a crime to grow drugs or sell them to US youth, even though it violates Mexican law. They contend the US's insatiable demand for drugs - and Mexico's five-year-old economic crisis - have pushed tens of thousands of poor farmers to cultivate marijuana. Besides, they argue, few Mexicans use or abuse drugs.

``Mexicans don't think that a person who grows marijuana and sells it in the US is necessarily doing a bad thing, says one political analyst who has closely followed US-Mexico relations in narcotics matters. ``People don't even feel outraged by the murder of Camarena.''

Indeed, the leading suspect in the murder, drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, is treated like a hero in his home town. Some of the locals have even composed a series of folk songs - known as corridos - celebrating his infamous deeds.

People feel their government is attacking the growth and prosecution of narcotrafficking as a favor to the US. The Army is using more than 25,000 of its 125,000 soldiers to fight the drug traffic.

The government here is hampered not only by public opinion, but also by strict rules on the gathering of evidence. Mexican police can't legally use the set-ups or ``sting'' operations that are more common in the US.

``It's illegal to `sell and bust','' a narcotics expert says, explaining that prosecutors must catch the traffickers or have solid evidence from a series of reliable witnesses. ``That makes it a very frustrating experience for DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] agents trying to go after the big drug traffickers.''

It also frustrates the US government when it makes indictments as it did last Wednesday. The Mexican government responds with written requests for details and proof, which the US declines for fear of endangering confidential sources. This not only creates distrust, but also a fuzzy line between rumor and reality.

Trials in Mexico rarely get public exposure mainly because they proceed by way of formal, written arguments.

Some annoyed US officials and congressmen have equated the lack of information with the lack of action, an assumption Mexicans consider simplistic and unfair.

Whether or not true, the Camarena case continues to drag on far longer than expected. In October 1986, the chief deputy attorney general predicted that sentencing of the suspects - including Caro Quintero - would be done by the end of the year. Fifteen months later, it's unclear whether they will ever be sentenced. ``We only have hints that the trial is progressing,'' says Guadalupe Gonz'alez, a researcher with the Latin American Institute of Transnational Studies here.

Mexican legal experts offer several other technical reasons why the process is slow, such as:

No plea bargaining.

A weak racketeering law. Mexico recently established a conspiracy law. But it is far less comprehensive than the US's so-called Rico law, which enabled US prosecutors to implicate and convict entire criminal networks by establishing a pattern of crime.

Armor-like protection of the accused: Under Mexican law, defendants are protected not only in terms of evidence gathered against them. But once arrested, they enjoy the full gamut of so-called Miranda rights.

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