When US Customs officials seized 23 pounds of black-tar heroin from a 1978 Ford LTD crossing the border last month, it was the biggest heroin bust in El Paso, Texas, in a decade.
For drug enforcement officials along the border, the unusually large shipment was also a sign.
"If they're sending that much over in one car" - the shipment had a street value of about $12 million - "it says [the drug traffickers] have a lot of confidence," says one US official. "It also says that, take any trafficker out of the picture, and no matter the struggle for territory and the violence that follows, the drugs still flow."
The official refers to the months of mayhem that have followed the death last July of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Mexico's most powerful trafficker. Since then, more than 50 people have died in drug-related violence in Ciudad Jurez alone, Mexican officials say, as rival drug gangs machine gun their way to a piece of the Carrillo Fuentes empire.
Yet even as the US moves into "certification" season once again, it appears that Mexico has not taken advantage of the disarray to dent the traffickers' business. Certification is the annual process in which the president must submit to Congress by March 1 an evaluation of drug-producing and trafficking countries' progress in the antidrug fight.
Explaining the high number of killings since July, one Mexican law-enforcement official in Ciudad Jurez says, "We are finally challenging the status quo here, and when you do that, you raise a lot of dust." But US officials say the violence is more classic account-settling within drug gangs than the result of a get-tough policy.
In evaluating the antidrug performance of a country like Mexico, arrests of major traffickers and extraditions for trial in the US are what count. Neither has occurred over the last year - although Mexico has arrested a number of military officials tied to drug organizations, and increased pressure on some drug gangs. The last major trafficker arrested and extradited to the US was Juan Garca Abrego in 1996.
Still, no one expects President Clinton to recommend less than full certification of Mexico when he submits his list to Congress, perhaps next week. "There's no question about Mexico's certification, Mexico's golden with Clinton," says Peter Lupsha, a border drug expert retired from the University of New Mexico.
The two governments last week unveiled a "new" binational antidrug strategy. The 16-point plan includes more US training of Mexican antidrug officers, more US drug agents in Mexico, and more US surveillance from inside Mexico of air and sea drug routes.
Mexican officials are credited with ratcheting up the pressure on the Arellano Felix brothers, who are being investigated by both the US and Mexico for allegedly heading a powerful Tijuana drug cartel. Police have recently invaded dozens of properties owned by the brothers in an attempt to arrest them. Ramon Arellano Felix is on the FBI's Most Wanted List. His brother also is a federal fugitive.
[Yesterday, the US indicted 10 San Diego gang members, allegedly tied to the Arellano brothers, for crimes that include the 1993 murders of seven people, AP reported.]