THE process by which the United States annually certifies which countries are cooperating in the international fight against drug trafficking has flaws. Strict evenhandedness isn't easy to come by.
That was demonstrated in the decision this year to decertify Colombia and to certify Mexico.
In the case of Colombia, its manifest public corruption, engendered by drug money, was pivotal. President Ernesto Samper Pizano stands accused of having accepted $6 million in campaign contributions from the country's cocaine lords.
Yet Colombia has not been absent from the antinarcotics battlefield. Colombian officials have jailed notable drug figures during the past year, and their efforts to eradicate coca production were praised in the State Department's certification report.
Key to the decision was the US feeling that Bogota simply wasn't fully aboard - and that Mr. Samper, by implication, was the reluctant, presumably cartel-influenced captain.
Mexico's government, by contrast, received a pat on the back for cooperation. Alas, its record on the ground isn't that much better than Colombia's. Mexico, too, arrested a top drug figure. But its level of drug-related corruption rivals Colombia's. And the flow of cocaine through Mexico to the US continues unabated.
Political motives undoubtedly figured in the certification process, with the next-door neighbor and NAFTA partner getting off while Colombia got slapped with a stiff sentence. Among other penalities, Colombia will face US opposition to any lending from international bodies like the IMF.
The Clinton administration's need to show some toughness on the drug issue demanded at least one Latin American showdown.
Still, imperfect as it is, the certification process serves a sound purpose. It requires close monitoring of narcotics flows throughout the world, and it sets standards and creates incentives, for cooperation in combatting them.
Over the long run, if the process is to be credible, it will have to be applied evenhandedly. And the yearly report will have to include a section on how drug-consuming countries are doing in tempering their appetites for the illicit substances. That will be the ultimate test of US objectivity.