The Sting Mexicans Can't Forgive, Forget

M. Delal Baer is a director of and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Mexico project

'More than one person has his nose out of joint about this," says one drug official of Casablanca, the undercover operation mounted on Mexico soil by U.S. Customs and the Department of Justice without the authorization of the Mexican government. The sting netted 167 people, including 26 Mexican bankers, on charges of money laundering.

Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the czar of the U.S. antinarcotics effort, found out about the operation on television. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was kept out of the loop and complained bitterly to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who himself is said to have been informed about the operation only a few months ago, even though the investigation was initiated three years ago by the L.A. branch of Customs. It seems that even the Casa Blanca (White House) was in the dark about the details. The result is the most serious crisis in U.S.-Mexican relations since the Drug Enforcement Administration kidnapped Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Mexican implicated in the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.

The Casablanca incident occurs at a time when constructive voices are increasingly drowned out by a neo-populist coalition hurling rocks south of the border all year round; by a relentless torrent of harsh U.S. press coverage of Mexico, and by an ever more vitriolic certification process in the U.S. Congress. For the average Mexican, the collective harangue of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Patrick J. Buchanan, Ross Perot and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), has fused into one hostile and threatening picture of the United States. Casablanca is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Although President Bill Clinton and his Cabinet rushed to make apologies to their Mexican counterparts, "I'm sorry" was not enough for Mexico's foreign-relations minister, Rosario Green, whose reputation as an old-style Mexican nationalist is coming to the fore. Green brushed off U.S. apologies for what she knows was an unintentional blunder and, instead, escalated the conflict. She threatened to indict the U.S. Customs officers who conducted undercover operations on Mexican soil without permission and to begin extradition proceedings. Under Mexican law, a sting is considered illegal entrapment. Her stance has inflamed a Washington community that wishes Mexico would show half as much passion for extraditing drug traffickers.

Mexico's escalation of the conflict left senior White House officials stunned and wondering whether or not the Mexicans know who their friends are in Washington. Clinton has many flaws, but if there is one area in which he has behaved as a statesman, it has been in U.S.-Mexico relations. He has taken it on the chin for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the peso crisis and has defended bilateral antidrug efforts. But it may be especially difficult for Clinton to go to the mat to defend bilateral relations against critics in Congress, particularly Republican critics in an election season, if the Mexicans are sticking it in the U.S. eye.

The Kabuki dance of injured pride and face-saving seemed to end at the U.N. summit on drugs. After delivering a blistering speech criticizing U.S. unilateralism and proposing a U.N.-led, global certification process, President Ernesto Zedillo met privately with Clinton to alleviate frictions. The annual Binational Commission reunion of the two countries' Cabinets, which met a week later in Washington, also stressed the positive. But lingering tensions surfaced in Albright's closing press briefing, at which she warned Mexico against pursuing the extradition of U.S. agents. Thus, a seemingly happy ending to the Casablanca affair may not be Act IV, but intermission.

Meanwhile, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced a resolution urging Clinton to defend U.S. Customs agents against any extradition effort, and some congressional staffers say it will pass if it reaches the floor. This is an ominous prospect, given that wavering senators, who will have to vote on the matter of certification in nine months, may wonder how they can support certification when the Mexicans seem determined to make themselves obnoxious.

Mexican calculations go beyond Casablanca to include the possibility that certification next year may not be winnable or winnable at an unacceptably high price. The prospect that Congress may overturn a presidential recommendation to certify Mexico is looming. Even if a presidential veto were exercised and sustained, such a victory would be Phyrric. "We have to inoculate ourselves," explains one Mexican foreign ministry official, who acknowledges that the government is considering a variety of contingencies. The threat to investigate U.S. agents is just one sign that the Mexican government is contemplating new options in anticipation of U.S. hostility. Mexico is approaching a turning point where the political cost of subjecting itself to U.S. imprecations in the name of cooperation may be higher than the cost of alienating the United States. Mexico's presidential candidate selection season will begin early in 1999, and continued confrontation feeds a nationalist backlash that aides candidacies hostile to the U.S.

Ironically, confrontation is looming at a time when there are signs of progress in the drug war. The leaders of a major Mexican methamphetamine cartel, the four Amezcua brothers, recently were captured. Significantly, the Mexican police team that made the arrests is one of the new, vetted antinarcotics groups jointly trained by Mexico and the United States. The fruits of building new Mexican law-enforcement institutions take years to mature, but the Amezcua arrest suggests that patience is warranted by a U.S. Congress searching for results.

Mexico needs to come to grips with the reality of the global drug trade. It speaks often and eloquently about the need to acknowledge the global nature of drug-related crime, but its behavior is not consistent with its analysis. It makes no sense to turn law enforcement issues such as the extradition of vicious criminals into points of national pride. Undercover U.S. Customs agents are not the moral equivalent of drug traffickers, nor should they be treated as egregious law breakers by the Mexican government. By failing to modernize its notion of national sovereignty, Mexico has been unable to come to grips with the realities of binational law enforcement and leaves itself open to charges of a lack of will. Why must joint operational capabilities in law enforcement, which is what is really needed to be effective against transnational criminals, founder on the rock of outdated notions of sovereignty?

In the aftermath of Casablanca, the United States must reassess the lack of coordination in the bilateral relationship. "Nobody is in charge of the U.S. government," one U.S. Cabinet officer says, referring to inter-agency snarls inside the Beltway and to the abduction of policy toward Mexico by semi-autonomous law-enforcement agencies such as U.S. Customs and the DEA. An accident-prone U.S. policy toward Mexico will have a high cost as the potential for a nationalist backlash grows south of the border.

Similarly, a reassessment of U.S. law enforcement is in order. Undisciplined unilateralism and bilateral cooperation are incompatible. The U.S. would not accept unilateral foreign operations in its territory. Why should we expect the Mexicans to behave differently? That Mexicans worry about our blithe disregard for the rules of the game says nothing about their commitment to combating drug trafficking and everything about their need for assurances that we will not abuse our superior power.

Both Mexico and the United States are reaching the limits of their ability to absorb the political costs of sustaining bilateral antinarcotics cooperation. The United States brought the relationship close to the brink with a unilateral police action, and now the Mexicans are taking it to the edge with unilateral diplomatic outrage. It is time for all sides to step back from the brink, for congressmen and diplomats alike to stop playing politics with bilateral relations and to start examining their conscience.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World