Speak Softly in Mexico

Bill Clinton's talent for soothing political utterances will be put to the test in Mexico. In the first US presidential visit to the Mexican capital since 1962, Mr. Clinton brings along a split agenda, positive and negative.

The positive side is expanding US-Mexico economic cooperation. The negative side, of course, is drug trafficking and illegal immigration. Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo may try to downplay those two major irritants during their meetings in Mexico City, but that won't be easy.

Mr. Zedillo helped see to that himself, ironically, by making a pre-visit declaration that his country would not budge on such questions as whether US antidrug agents operating in Mexico can carry small arms. The real issue, in the eyes of Zedillo and his fellow Mexicans, is national sovereignty. Would the US allow armed Mexican agents to operate within its borders?

It's just such emotions that Clinton will have to smooth down as he makes his case for even greater law enforcement coordination against a criminal threat to both countries. Mexico is in the process of rebuilding its antinarcotics command structure after the devastating revelation in February that its drug "czar" had taken bribes from a major trafficker.

Clinton had to move fast to head off a congressional thrust to decertify Mexico as a partner in the international battle against the narcotics trade. While Mexicans may appreciate his efforts, they chafe, with some justification, at the very idea of Washington "certifying" their law enforcement processes. There will be some heart-to-heart discussion of that this week, no doubt.

The US president will also have to explain to his hosts how Washington can extend the hand of friendship to Mexico while adopting laws to hasten the expulsion of undocumented Mexicans who perpetuate the generations-long practice of migrating northward to escape their homeland's poverty. The illegal-immigration issue evokes contrasting emotions on opposite sides of the border. But Mexico's leaders have to understand that for many citizens of the United States this, too, is a matter of sovereignty.

And, yes, the positive side. The North American Free Trade Agreement is generating new jobs and income in both countries. Disputes such as the safety of Mexican trucks that are rolling across the border in ever larger numbers have to be ironed out, and some in Clinton's own political camp still harbor grave doubts about NAFTA. But economic interdependence won't be turned back.

Neither, we trust, will the ongoing political reform, breaking open Mexico's encrusted one-party system, on which all of the above bilateral issues could largely hinge.

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