WITH larger quantities of a wider variety of illegal drugs pouring across the US-Mexico border than before, President Clinton has a tough decision before him. Tomorrow, the president who bailed Mexico out of last year's peso crisis will announce his decision on whether a southern neighbor and NAFTA partner is a worthy ally in the war against drug trafficking.
As on every March 1, the president must recommend to Congress what major drug-supplying countries are making progress against the illegal trade. This election year, the annual process called certification has become a political football, with Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole calling on Mr. Clinton to cut Mexico from the US list.
Yet decertification would undercut Mexico's recovery by denying access to international loans and assistance just as American dollars are working to stabilize Mexico's weak economy. Mr. Clinton seems unlikely to knock struggling Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon when many American officials acknowledge his antidrug efforts.
As the political debate burns on, border agents are confronting a drug trade that every day grows more violent.
An alert crackles over the Border Patrol agents' radios: Four ''mules'' - humans carrying large bundles on their backs - have been spotted by cameras. They are passing through the fairways of a Nogales, Ariz., golf course near the US-Mexico border.
With suspicions high that they are illegal aliens carrying drugs into the United States, Border Patrol agents swing into action. Racing to the scene over roadless terrain in four-wheel-drive vehicles, a half-dozen agents coordinate their approaches by radio and swoop down on the suspects.
Within minutes, the hillside is washed by the vehicles' high-intensity spotlights. All but one of the mules manage to escape into the night, but leave behind four large bags of marijuana. Total weight, 52 pounds; street value, about $42,000.
That incident, which occurred in December, reflects the drug activity taking place along the border day by day, night by night. Whether marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or ''speed'' (methamphetamines), the drugs are coming in by foot here, or in car trunks and the false floors of semitrailer trucks.
The drugs are carried or driven across a little at a time by the equivalent of an army of ants: people who will always be available to take a job for some good cash.
It's a system Mexico's drug lords employed first at the behest of Colombia's cartels and now increasingly use on their own. It works. Rather than send giant shipments that would mean bigger trouble and disruption if stopped, thousands of small loads are sent, with confiscated goods figured into the cost of doing business.
It is the operating system of a multibillion-dollar-business that has made the Mexican border the major entryway for drugs into the United States. The US is spending more money, deploying more people, and dedicating more technology to stanching the drug flow.
On the backs of the little guy
''What makes the Mexican system work is the guy at the bottom,'' says Phil Jordan, until January the director of the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), the intelligence arm of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). ''He's the guy who takes the most chances and earns the least, but the whole operation rides on his back.''
In a modern building dedicated to DEA agent Enrique Camarera Salazar - tortured to death in Mexico by drug lords in 1985 - EPIC agents explain a diagram of what they call the Mexican drug-trafficking federation. At the top are the patrones, the five men who control the border drug trade from Tijuana to Matamoros. One of the five, Juan Garcia Abrego, the brutal head of the Matamoros, Mexico-based Gulf cartel, was arrested in January and turned over to US officials.
Below the patrones are 10 ''division heads'' and then 12 ''gatekeepers,'' a partial list of the perhaps 20 major gatekeepers whom drug intelligence officers say organize the daily drug running that makes the system work.
''Before 1979 to '80, Mexico had a bunch of loose-knit, independently operating traffickers. But then Miguel Felix Gallardo came along,'' says Jordan, referring to the don of what Mexicans call the ''Pacific cartel,'' who is now in prison. ''He took a lesson from the Mafia in Italy, and now we have facing us a very sophisticated crime syndicate. These people may hate each other, but over the last decade they've learned the benefits of slicing up the pie and working together.''
For US drug-enforcement officials, the tip-off to the Mexican system came in 1989, when 21 tons of cocaine valued at $6.5 billion was seized in a warehouse in Sylmar, Calif.
What still ranks as the country's single largest cocaine bust stunned officials. But it also taught them much about how cocaine that originated with Colombia's cartels was divided up, shipped, and distributed largely by Mexicans - most of it coming through Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso before going north.
The DEA also learned that Mexican drug lords were taking at least part of their payment from the Colombians in the form of cocaine - which meant they were developing their own distribution capabilities.
Only over the past year or so has the threat of the Mexican ''federation'' to the US been aired publicly. In part this is because the DEA was focusing its efforts on the Colombian drug cartels, responsible for perhaps 80 percent of the cocaine entering the US.
But since the fall of three Colombian cartel heads in 1995, DEA administrator Thomas Constantine has been speaking more openly and forcefully about the Mexicans, predicting they could replace the Colombians as the primary traffickers by the end of the decade.
One reason is that Mexican traffickers are at the helm of the rapidly expanding methamphetamine trade. Independently of the Colombians or anyone else, Mexican ''speed'' barons are importing their raw materials from Asia and elsewhere, American drug officials say, and distributing their product through a Southwest-based network they control.
The tone of US-Mexico exchange over the drug trade ratcheted up a few notches earlier this month when Mr. Constantine told a gathering of US antidrug agents that Mexican drug trafficking organizations ''have developed and maintained control of the US markets for heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines in the US.''
The remarks drew instant fire from the Mexican attorney general's office, which said it ''rejects any statements that are not accompanied by concrete data.''
Some analysts also theorize, however, that Mexico and its developing drug-trafficking federation were left off the front burner by the Bush administration, and initially by the Clinton administration, because the priority for both was passage of NAFTA. With the trade accord facing formidable opposition in Congress, public concern over Mexican drug-trafficking was the last thing either administration wanted.
''We were restrained in our comments on NAFTA,'' Jordan says. ''It was a hot potato we were not supposed to touch, no question.''
What concerns antidrug officials so much about Mexico's federation is that it is right next door, in a country with which the US now has a free-trade accord and a policy of steadily removing impediments to the free movement of goods.
Today Jordan calls NAFTA a ''godsend'' to Mexico's drug traffickers, ''the best thing that happened to product distribution since Nike signed up Michael Jordan.''
American response to the rise in drug-trafficking over the border may have been slow, but it is now picking up. US Customs Service operations are being beefed up and modernized along the Southwest border. Under Operation Hard Line, cars and trucks crossing all along the border face more frequent and thorough inspections. The slightest whimper from a drug-sniffing dog is enough to cause whole trailers to be unloaded, X-rayed, and opened.
The Border Patrol is increasingly a part of the antidrug battle, in part because its total number of agents has doubled since 1993. Seizures of marijuana by the Nogales station alone more than doubled to 61,000 pounds from 1994 to 1995, while cocaine seizures exploded from 60 pounds in 1994 to 2,372 pounds in 1995.
The drug battle, along with stepped-up efforts against illegal immigration, is also causing the Border Patrol to become more involved in local law enforcement. In addition, the National Guard is now used in border states for a variety of activities ranging from road-building along the border to traffic direction at border bridges.
Major highways out of the immediate border region have secondary checkpoints. It is increasingly common for them to include the kind of ID checks that many Americans might consider offensive.
While many Americans who live near the border accept these conditions as a necessary part of the war against drugs, others warn against the dangers of the ''militarization'' of the border.
''What we have on the border is a slippery slope toward more use of military-style practices and equipment by agencies like the Border Patrol, along with an inching of the military toward involvement in immigration and drug-trafficking interdiction,'' says Timothy Dunn, a University of Texas at Austin researcher specializing in what he calls the ''military buildup on the border since 1988.
'Militarization' or not?
''Such warnings generally meet with a stiff rebuttal from American officials. Facing questions about the border's militarization during a visit to Mexico last year, Defense Secretary William Perry stated flatly that no such militarization was occurring nor would it be tolerated while he headed up the Pentagon.
The issue flared again in January when the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced a beefing-up of border surveillance to include additional military personnel. Also last month, the California legislature approved using the National Guard on the border.
And in Washington, several members of Congress are already calling for military deployment on the border to join both the drug and illegal immigration battles.
Jordan says he would support a military role in the drug war if other measures don't meet with more success. ''I'm sure the American public would support the protection of our borders from the narcotics enemy, just as they supported moving against the threat posed by Saddam Hussein,'' he says.
Last year, Jordan lost a brother in an El Paso carjacking by Mexican nationals that investigators say may have been a vengeful hit by Mexican drug lords.
''If [stronger measures are] what it takes to stop the scourge of narcotics from entering the country, especially with the lives we're losing on a daily basis, then so be it,'' Jordan says.