California's senior Democratic senator is leading the crusade to strip Mexico of its recent designation by President Clinton as a comrade in the global fight against drug trafficking. It is an effort some experts say will not only fail but also could further strain Feinstein's relations with the state's growing and powerful Latino community, not to mention put her at odds with the White House.
So why do it?
Even a failed attempt to reverse Clinton's certification of Mexico as an effective partner in the drug war is necessary to keep pressure on Mexican officials to do their part, Feinstein insists. Without the decertification threat, Mexico's meager advances on the drug front will not improve, she said.
"I have never expected to win this," Feinstein said in an interview preceding the Senate vote, expected as early as today. "What I expect to do is keep the pressure up. . . . Cartels are stronger than ever--we will show this--and there are zero arrests of cartel leaders [in Mexico]. And everybody knows who they are."
The Clinton administration is required by law to recommend annually whether to certify Mexico and other countries as full partners in the fight against drugs, or find them liable for possible economic and diplomatic sanctions. Feinstein and Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) failed in their bid to overturn last year's certification but won a special review by the administration of Mexico's drug-fighting efforts.
Now they are trying again, arguing that Mexico has done little to earn the stamp of approval in a drug epidemic Feinstein calls "a greater threat to American safety than all of organized crime was in the 1960s."
Armed with an arsenal of charts and statistics, Feinstein intends to spotlight in the Senate what she sees as Mexico's dismal commitment to stemming the gushing flow of drugs into this country--particularly methamphetamines.
A surging problem in California, the rampant spread of methamphetamine labs helped convince Feinstein to stay at Mexico's heels, her aides said. California is now considered the main source of the drug for the rest of the nation, produced primarily with chemicals from across the border.
There were 1,429 methamphetamine lab seizures in California in 1996--an increase of 61% over the previous year, Feinstein's staff said.
Feinstein is also concerned that the Mexican government has not complied with U.S. requests for the extradition of 27 nationals wanted in this country on major drug charges.
And she cites State Department statistics showing that in 1996-97, Mexico's heroin seizures dropped 68%, methamphetamine seizures fell 77% and seizures of ephedrine--a chemical used to make methamphetamine--declined 91%.
Despite such numbers, many critics argue that disgracing a neighboring trade partner with decertification is not the way to solve an intractable drug problem.
Further, critics say that Feinstein is blaming Mexico for a thriving narcotics market that the United States helped create: There can be, after all, no flourishing Mexican supply without enthusiastic U.S. demand. "It's hard for the United States to cast the first stone," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus.
And noting that decertification could carry with it trade sanctions, Becerra said: "The senator has to be aware that to succeed [in her fight] would have great economic consequences for California. And the last thing we need to do is to destroy not only diplomacy with one of our most important world partners but economic relations."
In a vacuum, the decertification issue would be unlikely to dent Feinstein's image with Latino voters when she faces reelection in 2000. But with her tough stance on illegal immigration already having alienated some Latino leaders, her bid to overturn Clinton's certification of Mexico is not being viewed as the sort of attitude adjustment these Latino leaders were waiting for.
"In those circles where she has lost support, this might be seen as an extension of a pattern. Her actions on this are not without a context or a history," said Isidro D. Ortiz, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at San Diego State.
Becerra added: "The message out there to anyone who values the relationship we have with Mexico is that she is turning a cold shoulder. And there is already a critical mass that believes the senator has been insensitive to some of the Latino community's concerns."
Feinstein counters that Latinos want the drug flow stopped as much as anyone. And putting trade concerns before a narcotics epidemic would be a grave mistake, she warns.
"When I make my remarks on the floor they are based on facts, not on any kind of bias or prejudice," she said. "I would send the highest kudos to Mexico if I saw some arrest of the cartels, but they are all flourishing abondanza."
Feinstein's persistence on the Mexico issue also makes her appear less than a loyal Democrat to the Clinton administration.
"We share a 2,000-mile border with Mexico, and it is in our best interest to work with Mexico," said Brian Morton, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "With all due respect to Sen. Feinstein, Mexico has made great strides and we hope to continue with those great strides in the future."
But behind the scenes, some administration officials applaud Feinstein's protestations. Sources close to the White House say that Feinstein's continuing criticism is believed to have helped push Mexico to be more cooperative. One congressional aide added: "She may be seen as an irritation, but that's all. Decertification won't haunt her."