U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III met in this Caribbean resort Monday with Sergio Garcia Ramirez, his Mexican counterpart, in a renewed effort to persuade Mexico to wipe out its drug crops.
It was their fourth meeting in 13 months, and it came amid alarming signs of Mexico’s resurgence as a major drug supplier to the United States.
Before their talks are concluded today, Meese, Garcia and their staffs are expected to discuss at length a relatively new form of heroin known as black tar.
The drug comes in small dark slabs, is water soluble, cheap and numbingly pure. It appeared last year in 27 American states, an unusual penetration for narcotics from Mexico, and for a while accounted for more than half of all heroin sales in the United States.
Besides representing another frustration in the worldwide effort to keep narcotics from flooding the United States, the black tar experience exemplifies the disappointing result of a yearlong U.S. campaign to persuade Mexico to destroy its drug crops.
Cultivation of the opium poppy, the source of heroin, is increasing in Mexico, as is the cultivation of marijuana.
Over the course of the year in which the attorney generals have been talking, the flow of narcotics from Mexico increased sharply. Privately, U.S. officials in Mexico City and Cancun blame Mexico. They say that jurisdictional disputes, corruption and incompetence have hindered efforts to stem the drug traffic.
Meese, faced with impatience in Congress, is expected to prod the Mexicans to set specific goals for crop eradication.
Less Expensive Heroin
About a third of the heroin and marijuana used in the United States is produced in Mexico, making Mexico the largest exporter of both to the United States. Because black tar heroin is less refined, it is less expensive than heroin from elsewhere.
Coca, the raw material for cocaine, is not grown here, but traffickers in other parts of Latin America use Mexico for access to the lucrative U.S. market. A third of the cocaine sent into the United States passes through Mexico, law enforcement officials say.
“We’re concerned,” Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland said. “We hope to see specific progress.”
The talks here will also take up the touchy subjects of arms trafficking, fugitive roundups, frontier smuggling of stolen cars and immigration. Diplomatic language is expected to prevail, but recent reports in Washington suggest rising unhappiness with Mexico’s anti-narcotics efforts.
‘Less Effective Eradication’
In March, a State Department report called Mexico the “principal disappointment” in last year’s worldwide campaign against narcotics.
There was particular concern, the report said, because of “evidence that the once-effective program to eradicate the opium poppy and marijuana has become less effective and that production was rising for both narcotics.”
U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab, in an unusually direct statement, told a congressional hearing that the Customs Service “is not receiving cooperation from Mexico” in the effort to curb smuggling. He said that the United States has increased patrols along the border but that “with the kind of corruption we have (in Mexico) we would need to put men there every three feet.’
Mexican officials contend that they have made great strides in combatting the drug traffic. Newspapers frequently publish reports of massive crop-destruction campaigns by the armed forces and the attorney general’s office.
22 Police Killed
Last December, the Mexican defense secretary, Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, said that 75% to 80% of the country’s opium and marijuana crop has been “dismantled.” A U.S. official termed the assertion a “fantasy.”
Mexico has made sacrifices in fighting drugs. Not long ago, 22 policemen were killed in a shoot-out with a gang of marijuana smugglers in a remote section of Veracruz. Yet, the feeling persists among U.S. officials that as eager as the Mexicans might seem to be, they are less than willing to cooperate fully.
The United States is giving Mexico $9.2 million this year to maintain a fleet of 89 airplanes and helicopters for spraying herbicides over poppy and marijuana fields. In the past decade, about $140 million has been handed over in such aid and equipment.
In 1984, a verification program called Operation Vanguard got under way. It was designed to permit U.S. agents to verify Mexican reports of crop eradication, but U.S. agents were rarely permitted to fly with the Mexicans.
U.S. officials complained that poisons were heavily watered, making the spraying ineffective. Scheduled eradication flights never took place, they said.
Finally, last December, U.S. authorities were allowed to go along on inspection flights, and now the U.S. authorities are said to be satisfied that Mexico is eradicating some crops, though the overall pace of eradication is considered woefully slow.
In recent months, the United States has tried to interest Mexican officials in joining U.S. pilots on surveillance flights along the 2,000-mile border. With a Mexican official on board the radar-equipped planes, U.S. authorities could legally pursue smugglers into Mexico.
Early this month, the Mexican police agreed to fly with the Americans, but only along the U.S. side of the border. Mexico has not given its permission for flights south of the border.
The drug traffickers seem less concerned than ever. According to Customs Commissioner Von Raab, new landing strips and storage warehouses are being built just below the border for quick entry into the United States, and marijuana fields are being improved with sophisticated irrigation systems.
Permanent Unrest Feared
Besides their immediate concern over the flow of drugs, U.S. officials are worried about the long-term implications. They fear that the pattern of lawlessness established by the drug traffic may cause permanent unrest along the border and that the drug traffic could come to finance a guerrilla movement in Mexico as it has in Colombia and Peru.
For many years, Mexico looked on the anti-narcotics drive as something forced on it by the United States. If there were no U.S. market for drugs, the Mexicans argued, then Mexico would not produce or transport drugs.
But recently, several officials have said that although Mexico may not be the source of the problem, the drug traffic will inevitably infect its society.