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Mexico’s Anti-Drug Credentials At Risk Arrest Of Top Drug Fighter Raises Doubts In United States

Wed., Feb. 26, 1997

As Mexico’s attorney general announced that his office will be overhauled to root out corruption and improve the Mexican battle against the narcotics trade, a foreign policy battle erupted here Tuesday over the possibility that the United States will certify Mexico as a nation that cooperates in the war on drugs.

Opposition grew on Capitol Hill and among some U.S. anti-narcotics officials to U.S. certification of its southern neighbor as part of a decade-old, congressionally required scrutiny of several dozen nations around the world.

But it still appears unlikely that the Clinton administration will not grant Mexico the certification. That is because such a refusal would fuel tensions between the economic partners, could unnerve foreign investors and likely would derail President Clinton’s plans to visit Mexico this spring.

Until last week - when Mexico announced that its anti-drug czar, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, had been arrested for links to Mexico’s most notorious drug trafficker - the decision to certify Mexico appeared to be a certainty. For months, top U.S. anti-narcotics officials had used only glowing terms in referring to the cooperation they were receiving from their partners in Mexico.

But the charges against Gutierrez and concerns that he had compromised much of the U.S.-Mexican counternarcotics effort changed the picture.

“There clearly is a major corruption problem at all levels” in Mexico, Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for narcotics affairs, told a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday. The news of Gutierrez’s ties to traffickers “belied previous assumptions that corruption was largely limited to the police,” Gelbard added.

But when questioned by members of Congress, he refused to say whether he thought the administration should certify Mexico and not interrupt the flow of its U.S. foreign aid.

And though Gelbard’s criticism was harsh, he also applauded Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo for investigating, arresting and jailing Gutierrez, despite the embarrassment to his government.

Meantime, members of Congress from both parties started flooding the White House on Tuesday with advice for Clinton on Mexico.

Because the American action regarding Mexico’s drug-fighting efforts might have dire effects on the significant U.S.-Mexico economic partnership - including the North American Free Trade Agreement - many of the lawmakers suggested that Clinton take a middle course: decertify Mexico but waive the economic sanctions.

“The flow of drugs into the U.S. via Mexico has risen dramatically in recent years,” House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., a leading NAFTA opponent, said in a letter urging the president not to certify Mexico. “We cannot continue to allow our children’s futures to be jeopardized as part of some short-term political calculus.”

Some Republicans were even more blunt in the hearing. “We can’t trust these people - that’s the whole point,” Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said Tuesday, lambasting the Clinton administration for failing to take harsher action against Mexico on drugs. “We don’t have a generation to wait until they develop their country.”

If the president does decide to certify Mexico, Congress could pass a resolution of disapproval that would reject that move. It is uncertain whether such a measure could win enough votes to be veto-proof.

Clinton, who made scant mention of Mexico as he sketched out his drug fighting plan at the White House Tuesday, did not reveal his position on the issue. “We are committed to cooperating with our friends in Latin America,” Clinton said. “We want to cooperate with them, but we want them to cooperate with us as well.”

But his anti-drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, said of Mexico: “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress in the last year, I would assert, on new laws, extradition, on crop eradication, on confrontation with the issue. … But this is a very difficult issue to talk about.”

In Mexico, Foreign Minister Angel Gurria issued a strongly worded appeal to Clinton on Tuesday, asking him to renew Mexico’s certification and warning that any move to downgrade Mexico’s standing would jeopardize future cooperation in the drug war.

The Mexican government believes it has made important advances in the war against powerful drug cartels, Gurria said, and a negative rating would awaken keen frustration and resentment against the United States.

“The Mexican people would question the whole concept of cooperation,” Gurria said.

Attorney General Roberto Madrazo conceded Tuesday that Mexico faces “the worst crisis” in its legal system “in modern Mexican history” and vowed to radically overhaul the institutions that are supposed to combat trafficking.

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