Mexico, U.S. Ties Warm in New Era

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cross-border cooperation between the United States and Mexico, on issues as diverse as the environment, fugitives, illegal immigration and drugs, has vastly improved under the new administrations of George W. Bush and Vicente Fox, officials in both countries agree.

U.S.-Mexican teamwork at the top levels of government is beginning to pay important dividends. For instance, when U.S. narcotics agents pounced on suspected cocaine traffickers last month in several American cities, the operation didn't stop at the border. Mexican police followed up with raids in Monterrey and Mexico City, capturing 14 money-laundering suspects.

Despite such successes, daunting obstacles to cross-border cooperation remain. On the thorny issues of drug trafficking and immigration, in particular, corruption in Mexico and mistrust in the U.S. prevent the full intelligence-sharing needed to tackle the smuggling empires head-on.

And in other areas, such as trade, powerful constituencies in both countries are hindering efforts at closer cooperation. Just last week, the Bush administration suffered an embarrassing blow to its efforts to further free trade between the two countries when the House of Representatives, citing safety concerns, voted to block Mexican trucks from traveling freely in the U.S., even though the president had supported such unfettered access.

Nonetheless, the moment is propitious: Mexican President Fox commands wide popularity thanks to his victory last July over the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years. Fox vowed to attack the corruption that had scarred the PRI's rule--and had fed U.S. mistrust of any serious cooperation with Mexico.

Bush, who as governor of Texas forged a strong relationship with his Mexican neighbors, is eager to achieve some victories on foreign policy, not otherwise his strength.

The combination of a new Mexican democratic legitimacy and a sympathetic new U.S. president has generated momentum for progress. The two sides have outlined an ambitious agenda for the years ahead that could fundamentally change the way the neighbors treat each other.

"It's amazing the level of attention we're receiving," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, an expert on U.S.-Mexican relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "A [Mexican] friend of mine in Washington says that when he calls a U.S. government agency now, he's treated as if he had a British accent. So yes, we are enjoying a honeymoon. Mexico has become suitably politically correct."

The cooperation is quickly going beyond generalities and principles, addressing practical details of contentious issues that have caused repeated rifts in past years.

For example, the United States and Mexico recently announced a joint approach to improve safety for migrants crossing the U.S. border illegally. The agreement calls for a set of specific joint search-and-rescue measures, as well as a policy review: The United States will reconsider programs such as "Operation Gatekeeper" on the California-Mexico border that have pushed migrants into the desert, and Mexico will look at ways to prevent migrants from crossing in the most dangerous areas.

Other areas also are getting new focus. In March, the two countries negotiated a deal on the contentious issue of water use along the border. For years, Texas farmers had complained that Mexico was failing to meet its commitment to release a minimum amount of water from its headwater tributaries into the Rio Grande, causing severe shortages of irrigation water. The agreement calls for Mexico to increase its provision of water. That deal is being implemented this summer.

More important, the accord requires the two countries to begin long-term joint planning for the entire Rio Grande basin, a move that environmentalists and farmers alike have been seeking for years.

The Fox government has also increased the capture and hand-over of fugitives who have fled from the U.S. to Mexico. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, Mexico has caught and deported 43 fugitives suspected of federal crimes, compared with 17 in all of fiscal 2000, according to the FBI. U.S. officials have worked closely with Mexican authorities to improve coordination in tracking down fugitives.

Extraditions of suspected drug traffickers from Mexico, a far more complex legal procedure than deportation, also are up sharply, thanks in part to a Mexican Supreme Court ruling in January declaring extradition to the U.S. constitutional.

Still, U.S. officials and Washington-based experts on Mexico warn that the honeymoon will only go as far as Mexican anti-corruption efforts are deep.

"The changes at the top level are important, and they really are significant because they turn the ship 180 degrees in the other direction, but at the middle and lower levels there is not yet much confidence from the U.S. perspective in what is happening on the Mexican side," said John Bailey, a professor of government at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on the U.S. and Mexico.

The lack of trust had grown so deep by 1998 that the United States failed to keep Mexico apprised of a major money-laundering probe in which U.S. agents crossed clandestinely into Mexico to carry out investigations. That operation, called Casablanca, caused a furor in Mexico over U.S. interference, which overshadowed the money laundering.

Facing that legacy, Fox's top officials set out first to rebuild the foundation.

Asked to identify the goals in the new U.S.-Mexican relationship, Fox's national security advisor, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, said: "It's establishing trust. This is the key."

Aguilar Zinser recalled that, during a visit to Canada with top security officers there, "one thing that impressed me was that they said, 'The first thing you have to build is trust with the United States. The best defense you can make for your own sovereignty with the U.S. is trust.'

"This was the center of the debate and discussion between Fox and Bush on security," Aguilar Zinser said. "They were determined to build trust. And that's what we're going to work on. Bush looked Fox in the eye and said, 'I can trust you thoroughly,' and so far there's been no breach of that trust. . . . We are checking with each other every day. We are looking at areas of cooperation every day."

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) was a member of a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers who traveled to Mexico City this spring to mend fences. After years in which Republicans on Capitol Hill spoke disdainfully of Mexico's drug-fighting efforts, the trip by Hagel and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), among others, marked a turnaround.

"What the reality is on the Mexican side of the border in the way of a culture that has propagated corruption, that is not going to change in one Fox term, and we'd better understand that," Hagel said. "That is a generational issue. That is how people have survived in Mexico and in many countries of the world. To change that, they are going to have to change pay structures, workers' rights--a whole set of standards and cultural values are going to have to change.

"But if you are intent on leading an effort to make that change, as I believe Fox is, then you must begin somewhere," Hagel said.

The drug-trafficking conduit from Mexico into the United States has always been one of the most controversial problems and perhaps the weakest area of cooperation. In recent months, the channel has taken some hits.

In May, Mexican officials arrested Mario Villanueva, the former governor of Quintana Roo state who had fled in April 1999 as he was about to be arrested on drug smuggling charges. Unusually, Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha publicly recognized that U.S. authorities had provided information that helped lead to Villanueva's arrest.

A day later, a grand jury indictment against Villanueva was unsealed in a New York federal court. The U.S. investigation linked the former governor to a series of cocaine shipments into the United States between 1994 and 1998.

Felix Jimenez, the agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in New York that handled the Villanueva case, compared cooperation in past years with the current atmosphere of trust using these words: "Night and day."

Significantly, U.S. officials provided intelligence to their Mexican counterparts more than a week before the joint anti-drug operation in June, senior U.S. officials said. In the past, for fear of leaks, U.S. information was shared only a day before such operations, if at all.

The toughest issues still lie ahead, particularly the negotiations on immigration.

Before he was inaugurated in December, Fox provoked an uproar during a U.S. visit by suggesting that the goal should be an open U.S.-Mexican border, with a free flow of labor.

Mexico is seeking an accord on immigration with the United States that would significantly increase the number of Mexicans who can legally work north of the border.

In return, the U.S. is sure to seek Mexico's commitment to clamp down on illegal migration.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow said that in the migration negotiations, "the level of communication has never been better."

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Smith reported from Mexico and Schrader from Washington.

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