US may slap sanctions on neighbor. Mexicans respond to charges of lack of cooperation in war against drugs

Mexico, prepare for another slap in the face. The House Foreign Affairs Committee was expected to call today for economic sanctions against Mexico for not cooperating fully with United States antidrug efforts. The Senate's overwhelming approval of sanctions April 14 sent a strong message to the House, which otherwise might well have voted the other way.

The Mexicans know that the legislation is largely symbolic. Even if Congress overrides an expected presidential veto, President Reagan can cite US interests and disallow sanctions. Measures would include a requirement that the US vote against Mexican loan requests from multinational development banks.

The Mexicans also realize that these votes reflect, to some degree, legislators' frustrations with the escalating drug crisis in the US and that this is an election year, with drugs high on the list of voter concerns.

But Mexico isn't terribly sympathetic. It says it's doing the best it can in tough circumstances, and cites statistics showing progress in drug eradication. Furthermore, Mexico is insulted by the very notion of having the US ``certify'' Mexican cooperation with US antidrug efforts, especially given the apparent US history of giving priority to its war on communism over the war on drugs.

``The world owes nothing to the US regarding drugs,'' says Adolfo Aguilar-Zinser, a Mexican scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``There needs to be international cooperation, not cooperation with the US. The US mind-set is the biggest obstacle.''

The US now faces the possibility of a less cooperative Mexico. So far, the Mexican government's only response has been to issue a statement critical of the Senate vote. But if the House also votes in favor of sanctions, retaliation may be in the offing.

``We might keep on going as we have been, and we might think of scaling down by refusing to accept US aid for our helicopters,'' said Jos'e Maria Ortega, one of Mexico's two deputy attorneys general, who visited Washington recently. The US gives Mexico $14.5 million in spare helicopter parts each year for its drug eradication program, the only US antidrug aid Mexico gets.

Mr. Ortega claimed that forsaking the spare parts would have no impact on Mexico's antidrug efforts. ``We have enough to pay out of our own funds for helicopter parts,'' he said. Ortega added that Mexico might also institute its own system of certifying US cooperation with Mexico on drugs.

Another Mexican with high-level connections suggests that Mexico is giving serious thought to reducing the number of agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency it allows to work in the country. It might also be less inclined to allow so many ``informal'' DEA agents - those not officially connected with the DEA office in Mexico - to operate there, the Mexican said.

Some Mexican drug agents are leery that US agents are more interested in building up cases of corruption against Mexican officials than fighting drugs, or are using the DEA as a cover for intelligence operations, he added.

Mark Moran, a Washington lawyer who provides legal counsel for President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, said the Mexican leader is ``very patient'' and likely to withstand the temptation to retaliate.

While acknowledging Mexico's efforts to battle drugs, the US has a long list of complaints. Mexico has a response for each one.

According to the US Customs Service, corruption of Mexican officials is the most important factor undermining antidrug efforts. Customs has a continuing investigation into officials who help drug traffickers by offering them protection (the incentive being that drug money boosts weak local economies).

Deputy Attorney General Ortega responds: ``Corruption in Mexico is at the same level as in the US among drug-related officials.... Besides, most of the proceeds stay in the US.''

Mexico does not allow the US unlimited access to Mexican air space to chase planes thought to be carrying drugs. Mexico's reply: So-called ``hot pursuit'' violates Mexican sovereignty.

Mexico does not give the US information on the activities of Mexican banks, all but two of which are nationalized. The US says it needs such information for investigation of money laundering.

Mexico's reply: ``Mexican banks, like most banks the world over, respect the standard principles of banking secrecy and could provide information only upon valid specific judicial request in accord with Mexican law,'' says Leonardo Ffrench, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy. ``Do US banks act otherwise?''

The US complains that Mexico has not cooperated as much as it could in its investigation of the killing of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in 1985. Some Americans complain that Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug trafficker charged with involvement in the Camarena case, has still not been sentenced three years after his arrest.

Mexico's reply: The Mexican judicial system, based on the Napoleonic Code, is slow and subject to delays. Mexican officials expect a sentence by the end of the year.

Mexican officials in Washington seem to be armed at all times with statistics on Mexico's drug program - facts such as, Mexico has the world's largest air fleet dedicated to the war on drugs: 93 aircraft. More than 60 percent of the Mexican attorney general's budget goes to the drug campaign. In 1987, more heroin was seized than in 1985 and '86 combined. Since 1982, 155 Mexican agents and soldiers have been killed in the war on drugs.

But evidently many in Congress are not impressed.

``In Latin America, statistics are poetry,'' says a congressional aide who deals with the issue of narcotics.

``Mexican seizures of heroin? Zilch.... And one-third of [other] drugs seized are resold. We've used the carrot all these years, so maybe it's time to start using the stick.''

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