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U.S. Censure Could Poison Relations, Mexicans Warn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As pressure mounted for Washington to punish Mexico for its failings in the anti-drug fight, analysts and officials here warned Thursday that such a step could poison relations between the two nations and weaken a Mexican president who has been considered a strong U.S. ally.

As a result, they said, cooperation in fighting Mexico’s powerful drug mafias could actually worsen rather than improve.

Under a 1986 U.S. law that requires an annual review of 31 nations’ efforts to curb narcotics trafficking, President Clinton must decide in the next few days whether, for the first time, to downgrade Mexico, or “decertify” it because of its performance in combating drugs. If he does so, he will almost certainly waive the economic sanctions that could accompany such a step.

But even this action would be seen as far more than a slap on the wrist by Mexicans, who strongly resent any perceived interference in their affairs by their powerful neighbor.

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“It would be a gross miscalculation” by U.S. authorities, said Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Mexico is very sensitive to symbolism . . . and the symbolic message would be devastating. With a waiver, we would wind up hurting our friends and helping our enemies.”

Mexico is suffering perhaps the worst crisis in its anti-narcotics fight after the arrest of its anti-drug czar last week on charges that he worked with the nation’s top narcotics cartel.

Still, Mexicans are outraged by the thought that they could be “decertified” by the United States--the very country that buys most of the world’s heroin, cocaine and marijuana, stimulating the drug trade in the first place.

A decision against Mexico would therefore probably be met with a nationalist backlash here.

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Facing critical midterm elections this year, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo would be pilloried by opposition parties for having cooperated with U.S. anti-drug authorities, analysts say. He could also be assailed by conservative members of his own party who oppose his pro-American policies.

“This would oblige the president [Zedillo] to take a very tough stance to show that he’s not a weakling” subservient to the U.S., a former senior government official said.

Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor specializing in U.S.-Mexico relations, said a negative U.S. assessment of Mexico’s drug war “could push the government to take a more isolationist attitude, to reject further cooperation.”

Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria Trevino has already declared that any lessening of Mexico’s status could cause a “fracture” in bilateral relations just weeks before a scheduled visit by Clinton, the first trip here by a U.S. president in seven years.

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Finance Minister Guillermo Ortiz Martinez warned that the economy could be hurt too.

“Of course it [decertification] would affect cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, and this is not good for the economy, nor is it good for the markets,” Ortiz told reporters.

The Mexican peso suffered its biggest one-day drop in more than a year Thursday, losing 2.21% of its value against the dollar.

But Wall Street analysts said privately that they expected any economic fallout from the drug decision to be short-term.

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Until this year, U.S. officials had spoken in glowing terms of Zedillo’s efforts to pass tougher drug laws and take other steps against traffickers.

Zedillo, they noted, took an unprecedented action in expelling Juan Garcia Abrego, a major drug kingpin, to the United States a year ago. Zedillo’s government used a disputed baptismal certificate to argue that Garcia Abrego--who since has been convicted on drug charges and sentenced to life imprisonment--was actually American.

Late Thursday, Mexican authorities announced they had arrested Garcia Abrego’s successor at the helm of the Gulf drug cartel. Oscar Malherbe de Leon tried to buy his release by offering a $2-million bribe to the arresting officers, the Mexican attorney general’s office said.

Sending Mexicans to stand trial in the U.S. raises deep concern here, with many people fearful of having national sovereignty trampled by Americans.

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Last fall, Mexico for the first time used a special clause in its constitution to extradite two Mexican drug-trafficking suspects to the United States.

In a sign of how sensitive the issue was, the extraditions did not become public here until this week, and there has been no information released as to the disposition of the cases against these men.

Nor did the government reveal its decision last year to send to the United States a Bolivian who was believed to be a key contact between Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.

The suspected trafficker, Jose Luis Pereira Salas, was captured in Mexico City in May. Authorities decided to put him on a plane bound for Bolivia--via Miami, officials said privately. There, he was arrested by dozens of FBI agents who had been tipped off. He faces trial in the next few weeks.

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On Wednesday, opposition lawmakers criticizing the U.S. certification process demanded that Zedillo end such cooperation.

“The fight against drug trafficking, the crimes committed by drug traffickers on national territory and the violations of laws of our country should be judged by us, and handled by Mexican justice and courts,” Pedro Etienne, a Congress member from the left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party, said in a debate.

Protests against the U.S. process have reached fever pitch in recent days, with business leaders, politicians and newspaper columnists all condemning it.

The chorus of complaints extended to other Latin American countries subject to the annual U.S. review.

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“Certification . . . exacerbates nationalistic sentiments, demoralizes government officials and demonizes the institutions of a solid and serious democracy in the eyes of the world in an unfair way,” Colombian President Ernesto Samper declared Tuesday.

Colombia was placed on a pariah list of countries last year, in large part because of suspicion that Samper had accepted millions of dollars from cocaine traffickers. Samper denies those charges.

Times staff writer Juanita Darling in San Salvador contributed to this report.


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