Will Clinton's act of faith in Mexico cut drugs to US?

US, Mexico: Uneasy Allies in War Against Drugs

Now that President Clinton has given Mexico a passing grade for its help as a partner in the war on drugs - despite recent glaring evidence of Mexico's shortcomings in the fight - the question is: What will the United States get in return?

Mexican officials say cooperation with the US will be enhanced by the decision and that Mexico will now work harder with the US on the "serious problem" of law-enforcement corruption. But they insist that Mexico has not bowed to a list of specific demands, including those the US made last week concerning operation of US drug agents inside Mexico.

Mr. Clinton's decision reflects the special status he gives Mexico and suggests the importance his administration places on solid economic relations.

Mexico's special status was made even clearer by Clinton's simultaneous decertification of Colombia for the second year in a row. Given the various successes of Colombia's antidrug program over the past year, the case can be made that Colombia has been at least as cooperative as Mexico.

Just as Clinton ordered Mexico's economic bailout package in February 1995 despite strong congressional opposition, the president certified Mexico over the objections of several dozen members of Congress, who argued for using the annual report card to express firm disapproval of Mexico's failings.

Only one week before Clinton announced his annual certification list, the man in charge of Mexico's antidrug war, Gen. Jess Gutirrez Rebollo, was arrested for allegedly being on the payroll of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, head of Mexico's Juarez drug cartel.

And just hours after Clinton certified Mexico, Mexican officials announced that Humberto Garca Abrego, accused of being the top money launderer for his brother Juan's Gulf cartel, had escaped police during questioning last week.

Mexico has also failed to arrest several drug lords the US has long sought and has yet to implement the stronger money-laundering legislation it passed last year. Other recent revelations have reemphasized how pervasive corruption of Mexico's public officials by drug traffickers has become.

Having said that Latin America would receive new attention in his second term, Clinton signaled with the certification that he envisions Mexico to be among the success stories of his presidency. In January's State of the Union address, he made special note of the success of his bailout package in stabilizing Mexico's economy. Now with Congress having 30 days to review or (although it appears unlikely) override the certification, and with his first visit to Mexico set for April, Clinton clearly wants evidence from Mexico that his good faith is warranted.

In announcing Clinton's certification of Mexico, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the president ordered the State Department, the Attorney General's Office, and drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey to "constantly monitor" Mexico's cooperation over the coming year. Special attention would be paid, Ms. Albright said, to progress in arresting major drug lords, extradition of drug criminals to the US, money laundering, and the fight against corruption.

But US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones told reporters after the announcement that the decision was made without conditions.

One Mexican government official, asked if Mexico had made any concessions to US demands, said, "The answer is an absolute 'no.' [Mexico] may have related in talks with US officials, 'This is what we are going to do after Gutirrez Rebollo,' but our consistent position [on these issues] has not changed."

The US Drug Enforcement Agency last week used Mexico's weak position in the wake of recent drug scandals to resubmit some longtime demands: that DEA agents operating in Mexico be allowed to carry weapons, for example, and that they receive diplomatic immunity. The DEA would also like to increase the number of agents it has in Mexico.

Where the US might see improvement is on money laundering and the extradition of drug lords. Mr. Garca Abrego's escape is clearly a blot on such hopes. But US officials have begun the extradition process of Oscar Malherbe, who was arrested in Mexico City Wednesday. Mr. Malherbe is pegged as the lieutenant running the Gulf cartel in the absence of Juan Garca Abrego, who was extradited to Texas in January 1996.

Clinton administration officials looking to win support for Mexico's certification hailed his arrest. But not all drug-trafficking experts agree. Malherbe was an easy trophy to impress Washington before certification, a "small fish" in the drug pond, says Peter Lupsha, an analyst of Mexico-US drug trade at the University of New Mexico.

Clinton's decision means he won't come to Mexico in April as the first president to have put Mexico on the pariah list of decertified countries. But some Mexican officials express concern that a nationalist reaction against its northern neighbor's "report card on drugs" could complicate Mexico's antidrug effort by fomenting public support for Mexicans accused of drug-trade connections.

That reaction may have already started. Demonstrations popped up last week in support of two governors suspected by US officials of ties to drug traffickers. And in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, the small Cardenista Party announced last week its plans to nominate Carrillo Fuentes's mother as a candidate for Congress in July. Residents appreciate the good works the family has done for the community, party officials say.

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