President Clinton has a tough decision to make by tomorrow: He must announce whether Mexico is a worthy ally in the war against drugs.
As the nation's chief executive has done each March 1 for 11 years, Mr. Clinton must report to Congress on efforts of 31 nations to stem the flow of illegal drugs to the United States.
The process is particularly pressure-packed this year because Mexico - a trade partner in the North America Free Trade Agreement and a close ally - was rocked this month by the indictment of its top drug official for protecting a notorious drug lord. An estimated two-thirds of all illegal drugs enter the US through Mexico.
But beyond the difficult decision on Mexico is the scrutiny facing the certification process itself. It has been controversial since its 1986 inception because of the potential to alienate foreign allies. But critics now question whether the judgments - to certify or decertify - help to counter the drug trade.
Most experts agree that the certification process has done little to curb the supply of drugs entering the US. In fact, studies show that more drugs are available in the US today at the least expensive prices ever. Still, some say the process is a valuable diplomatic tool, a way of bringing US pressure to bear on drug-supplying countries.
Several drug-producing nations, such as Burma, Iran, and Afghanistan, clearly don't care what the US thinks. And most experts say certification is demeaning to countries in the Western hemisphere that are trying to reduce drug trafficking.
"The stakes in terms of drug control are just too slight to justify all the international hostility that we generate through this process," says Peter Reuter, professor in the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park.
David Scott Palmer, who teaches US-Latin America relations at Boston University, agrees. "It is demeaning to the Latin American countries involved."
But the process can be a useful diplomatic tool, Dr. Palmer says, and it complements US programs to curb domestic demand and stem foreign supply. Colombia, which the US decertified last year, and Mexico have each taken steps to please the US, he says.
Mexico's attorney general announced on Tuesday a radical restructuring of the nation's justice system to root out corruption, a move many analysts say was clearly made in an effort to ward off decertification.
Moreover, the US Drug Enforcement Administration may be able to parlay Mexico's vulnerable status to win some concessions it's wanted for some time, such as an increase in the number of DEA agents allowed in Mexico, the right for DEA agents to carry firearms in that country, and the granting of immunity for them.
Colombia's President Ernesto Samper Pizano has pushed through legislation to increase prison terms for convicted drug barons, seize assets of convicted drug traffickers, and stiffen money-laundering laws.
But others question whether Colombia's decertification in fact had any teeth. The US has not placed economic sanctions on Colombia, and it has not voted against loans to Colombia from international lending institutions. In fact, the most punishing blow has been that President Samper lost his US visa because of strong evidence that his 1994 election campaign was heavily financed with drug money.
"[The process] achieves short-term gains, like firing somebody who is corrupt, increasing the eradication of crops in a particular area, or lengthening somebody's jail term," says Kenneth Sharpe, a political scientist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "But none of those smaller actions actually makes any difference in terms of overall supply or the price of drugs in the US."
Dr. Sharpe is not sure what Colombia's decertification accomplished. Even if sanctions were applied, he says, they would not have eliminated military aid to Colombia for antidrug programs.
Still, the certification process places the drug problem on the calendar, says John Bailey, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington and a Mexico expert. "It is valuable in that it forces the executive to produce a report for the Congress to look at," he says. "It forces a conversation on the subject for most of March."
Clinton's decision has been complicated by a congressional chorus, including powerful Democrats as well as Republicans, urging decertification. Even so, the president most likely will certify Mexico with strong reservations, says Dr. Bailey. Or, if Clinton does decertify Mexico, Bailey believes he will institute the national-security waiver.
That, he says, will be the benefit of the process. "It would generate a debate in Mexico about what is possible to do.... It moves drug trafficking higher on the agenda, and that may be good."
* Certify. The White House can certify Mexico as cooperating fully in the war on drugs.
* Decertify. US would halt foreign aid to Mexico, except for antidrug programs.
* Decertify and apply a national-security waiver. The action would publicly humiliate Mexico, but economic sanctions would not be applied.
* No action. Lawmakers accept the White House decision.
* Legislative action. Lawmakers disagree with the White House and attempt to change the decision via legislation.