Drug Certification Process Doesn't Make the Grade

Last year, the Clinton administration set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill with its drug "certification" decisions - which rate the antinarcotics efforts of other countries. Members of Congress scurried to release ever longer lists of detailed demands on Mexico, and to champion larger packages of arms for the military and police in Colombia. We deserve more than a repeat performance when this year's decisions are announced this month.

Congress should end the drug-certification requirement. The policy has been an ineffective tool for drug control, undermining other important US interests. Policymakers should work instead to create more effective multilateral mechanisms for combatting the violence and corruption of the drug trade. The focus should be on the real work of reducing the harm and healing the damage of drug addiction and abuse across the US.

Enacted by Congress in 1986, the certification process sets penalties for countries not deemed cooperative on drug-control efforts, including withdrawal of most US foreign assistance not directly related to counter-narcotics programs, US opposition to loans from multilateral development banks, and possible trade sanctions.

More often than not, the process erodes the sense of common purpose and partnership that must be the foundation of international cooperation. The "score card" approach is deeply resented in Latin America, where much of the world's cocaine and heroin are produced. It is widely disparaged as a unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and hypocritical exercise by the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs.

Despite a $25 billion investment in interdiction and "source country" programs over a decade and half, cocaine and heroin are as easily available in the US as they were 15 years ago, and at cheaper prices. Meanwhile, the violence and corruption of the international drug trade are damaging economies, judicial systems, and democratic institutions throughout the hemisphere.

Colombia, for example, faces the prospect of its third consecutive decertification. Certification defenders note that the Columbian government made important strides in dismantling the Cali cartel, prompted in part by US pressure. But the record is mixed. The Cali cartel has been replaced by a plethora of smaller trafficking organizations, which are harder to infiltrate and deter.

The country has moved from third to first in the list of coca-producing countries since it was first decertified. What's worse, US attacks on Colombia's elected civilian governments over certification and drug corruption - and the provision of $100 million this year and last in US police and military aid - have strengthened the hand of Colombia's security forces, despite their deplorable human rights record.

The certification process holds hostage other aspects of US bilateral relations to the single issue of counter-narcotics. Last year's near-decertification of Mexico strained cooperation on cross-border migration and trade issues. For months, the administration was forced to expend a great deal of energy trying to repair the damage.

The issue finally has been broached in Washington. Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate last year to suspend certification for two years while a better approach is developed. Although ultimately defeated, it sparked the most serious congressional debate in more than a decade on the process. For the first time, top Clinton administration officials - including drug czar Barry McCaffrey - went on record opposing the certification process and favoring the creation of a more effective strategy for international cooperation.

Removing the distraction of the certification process would send a signal that the US - with its $50 billion demand for illicit drugs - sees our Latin American neighbors as essential partners in combatting the drug trade. It would allow us to turn attention to the domestic roots of our drug problems - preventing and treating drug abuse and addiction in our own backyards.

* Bill Spencer is deputy director and Coletta Youngers is senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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