Why Estrange Mexico With Insults? : U.S. Attitude May Sour Necessary Cooperation on Drug War

Manuel Garcia y Griego, a U.S. citizen, is a researcher in international studies at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City and co-editor (with Carlos Vasquez) of "Mexican-U.S. Relations: Conflict and Convergence," published in 1983 by UCLA

Now that Mexico's Department of Justice has charged several police agents in the deaths of a U.S. drug-enforcement agent and a Mexican pilot who worked with him, the U.S. government's one-sided war of words--and actions--against Mexico appears to be winding down.

The change in rhetoric reflects a grudging recognition that the Mexican government has indeed made progress in bringing this case to justice. It does not, however, signal the United States' willingness to apologize for the accusations and the insults that have been hurled across the border--the suggestions that Mexico is indifferent toward drug trafficking, and that corruption in high places was responsible for the kidnaping and murder of Enrique Camarena and Alfredo Zavala Avelar.

While Mexicans deplore the crimes, they resent being pushed around like this by the United States. Those who have been taking pot shots at Mexico do not seem to realize that U.S. drug-enforcement agents are not here as a matter of right, but because this government has given them permission. This it has done because it, too, has a strong interest in fighting the narcotics trade. Drug abuse in Mexico is a growing problem, and a large number of serious crimes are associated with the traffic in illegal drugs. Moreover, narcotics rings have infiltrated local police and challenged governmental authority.

Mexico spends considerable sums in fighting drug traffic on its own, and it pays a price in blood. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers have become casualties of the fight against drugs since President Miguel de la Madrid took office in December, 1982.

But fighting drug trafficking in Mexico is one thing; cooperation with U.S. police agencies is another. The presence of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico has rested on no more than a fragile consensus. Just as any country would, Mexico gets a little nervous when a police force attached to a foreign government is operating in its territory. As some Mexicans who opposed this predicted, inevitably one of these agents would get hurt and Mexico would get blamed. An implicit condition for accepting the presence of DEA officers, then, was that if the U.S. government ever had a complaint about their safety, it would follow the proper channels to communicate it.

The U.S. government has not done that. If matters were as serious as alleged, President Reagan could have done exactly what President De la Madrid was to do after Washington all but closed the border in February: Pick up the telephone and explain that a matter of importance to his government was being handled improperly. Anyone with a minimal understanding of U.S.-Mexican relations knows that a Mexican president could not ignore such a request.

Instead, U.S. officials let loose a barrage of insults and innuendo directed not only at the Mexican police allegedly involved in the incident but also at Mexican society and institutions as a whole.

This was followed by strong-arm tactics inappropriate to the circumstance, which assaulted Mexico's national dignity. Why offend Mexico in this way?

This is an important question, because the Mexican public, like the rest of the world, assumes that the United States conducts its foreign policy in a rational manner in pursuit of considered, if not always considerate, objectives. What, people here ask, was the real reason for such a heavy-handed approach? It did get the attention of the highest levels of the Mexican government, but it also outraged most sectors of Mexican public opinion and united it against the United States.

From this vantage point it is hard to believe that the United States really wants cooperation in stemming the flow of drugs. At best, it seems that the United States wants to dictate the terms by which Mexico will fight the drug war on its own territory; at worst, it looks as if Mexico is being pressured for reasons unrelated to the investigation of the kidnap-murders. Whatever the motives, U.S. behavior in this incident has made the presence of DEA agents in Mexico less, not more, acceptable.

Public outrage has only begun to have an effect on the posture of the government. By and large, Mexican officials have played down the conflict, resisting the temptation to escalate the rhetoric. But the events of the last few weeks have put the government in a tough situation. Its success in building a case that is strong enough to be tried in the courts does not seem to be getting the kind of recognition in the United States that one might expect. Instead, it got blistering criticism. And that criticism has stirred up a hornet's nest regarding bilateral drug-enforcement cooperation. In the meantime, relations between the two countries have deteriorated, and things are actually worse than they seem. In a statement before Congress earlier this month, Secretary of State George P. Shultz seemed to imply that Mexico should be worried because the United States was losing its patience. Though Mexico cannot ignore the anger of its northern neighbor, it cannot make policy as if that were all that mattered. After all, the government of Mexico is ultimately accountable to the Mexican people, not to the United States.

For Mexico the issue now is: Are the potential benefits of drug-enforcement cooperation with the United States worth the indignities to which this country is being subjected? For the United States, the issue goes beyond the value of maintaining such cooperation. The real question is whether the Reagan Administration appreciates the seriousness of the crisis in U.S.-Mexican relations that is brewing and, if so, whether it cares how it is resolved. Mexico has been backed into a corner. Is that what the United States wants?

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