U.S. Is Brushing Off Mexico's Drug Data!

U.S. Is Brushing Off Mexico's Drug Data!
Posted by FoM on February 14, 1999 at 09:31:10 PT

WASHINGTON As the Clinton administration weighs its annual evaluation of Mexico's cooperation in fighting illegal drugs, U.S. officials admit privately that by most statistical measures, the Mexican record looks especially bad this year. 
Drug seizures by the Mexican police have fallen significantly. Nearly all of the most important Mexican narcotics traffickers identified last year remain at large. The promised extraditions of some Mexican drug suspects to the United States have not materialized, and drug enforcement programs have been rocked by a series of public conflicts between the two governments. Yet even as President Clinton embarks on a brief visit to Mexico starting Sunday, his aides have neither despaired of such facts nor spent much time analyzing them. "There is a difference between cooperation and success," the State Department spokesman, James Rubin, argued last week. While their cooperation might not be having much effect on the problem, he suggested, Mexican officials "are cooperating more closely with the United States at virtually every level than ever before." The fervor with which administration officials are praising Mexico's record -- even before studying the assessments being collected from various government agencies -- underscores how for Mexico the yearly "certification" process has become more of a joint public-relations campaign aimed at the Congress than an objective appraisal. "This is not about what Mexico has done," one administration official said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "This is about convincing the Hill that whatever Mexico has done is enough." Administration officials say their evaluation, which is expected by the end of the month and mandated by a 1986 law for countries where drugs are produced or transported, is particularly counterproductive in Mexico. To observe the law strictly and possibly impose the economic penalties it contemplates, they argue, would be to place a strategic and complex relationship at risk for just one of the many interests that the United States has in Mexico. And Mexican officials have done their best to underscore that risk. "I don't even want to think what decertification would provoke," Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Jesus Reyes Heroles, said in an interview. "The equilibrium that underlies our relationship with the United States would be undone." Many analysts of Mexican politics describe such warnings as overblown. Moreover, aides to a half-dozen Washington legislators who have played leading roles on the drug issue say Mexico's decertification is unlikely anyway. The aides, speaking on the condition they not be identified, said they expected a formal endorsement of Mexico's efforts from the administration and then an energetic congressional effort to override that endorsement. But they added that they see no clear sign that they will be any more able to reverse the certification than they were last year, when a Senate motion for disapproval gathered only 45 votes. "There's a kind of weariness with fighting the same battle over and over," a Senate aide said. "It gets old." Supporters of the administration note that although the Mexican authorities have not made much headway against the drug mafias over the last year, the establishment of elite anti-drug units within the army and the federal police has led to closer working relationships with the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. But officials from each of those agencies challenge the administration's public assertion that the Mexican authorities are trying their best. Those officials contend that the obstacle to success in Mexico is not so much the strength of the traffickers or the inexperience of the police but the Mexican government's unwillingness to fight corruption more aggressively. Intelligence officers working with the military's special anti-drug force, the Center for Anti-Narcotics Information, say they believe that some of its efforts may have been compromised by corrupt superiors, officials said. Three senior agents of an elite Mexican police force trained by U.S. officials failed lie-detector tests last year over questions about their contacts with drug traffickers. The agents were moved out of the unit but remain in the federal police. Drug investigations that have touched on several well-known Mexican politicians and at least a dozen high-ranking military officers have not yet led to any arrests, despite what U.S. officials describe as strong evidence that some of the politicians and officers have sought to protect traffickers in return for large bribes. Perhaps most important, officials say that on a series of occasions over the last year, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials have provided their Mexican counterparts with information on the whereabouts of powerful drug traffickers, only to have Mexican agents mishandle the intelligence or wait for hours before carrying out raids. "We give them houses, we give them phone numbers -- and nothing happens," said a U.S. official. "Cases go nowhere." An embarrassing example of the problem will provide a backdrop for President Clinton's meetings with President Ernesto Zedillo, which are to take place in and around the city of Merida, on the Yucatan peninsula. Just across the peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials have been working for more than a year with elite Mexican forces to dismantle a major drug-smuggling operation with headquarters in the resort city of Cancun. In one debacle last spring, U.S. officials said, officers of the military intelligence unit recognized two of the most important traffickers in the Cancun organization, Ramon Alcides Magana and Albino Quintero Meraz, but made no attempt to capture them. On other occasions, U.S. intelligence officials gave officers of the military unit home addresses and telephone numbers for each of the two traffickers. But again, officials said, opportunities to arrest the pair were lost. Last October, the unit appeared to get an important break when it captured Gilberto Garza Garcia, the trafficker who oversaw the mafia's movement of cocaine shipments from Cancun up the gulf coast to McAllen, Texas. But U.S. and Mexican officials said that after negotiating with the general who headed the military unit and promising to help him trap Magana, Garza Garcia was placed in the custody of two detectives from whom he escaped the next day. The general has since been reassigned, Garza has been recaptured and the detectives have been under investigation since being found with more than $20,000 given to them by the trafficker. The White House drug-policy chief, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, suggested that such short-term failings should not distract the United States from its ultimate goals for Mexico. And while he and other White House officials have often tried to silence law-enforcement agencies that are critical of Mexico's performance, he did not hesitate to offer his own view on certification in advance of deliberations that will be overseen by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "I think what we ought to do is look at U.S. national interests in the long term," McCaffrey said. "Do we think that partnership with Mexico is important to us and is beginning to show signs of substantial cooperation? My own advice" to Albright "is they should be certified." Mexican officials have undertaken a similarly aggressive defense of their efforts, lobbying more intensively than ever in Washington and spending $100,000 a month to hire three high-profile lobbying firms to assist them in getting their message out. Mexican officials have also held out to U.S. officials the possibility that they might yet deliver a spectacular, last-minute blow in the drug fight, one that could erase questions on Capitol Hill about their willingness to move against the mafias. Skeptical U.S. officials have taken to calling this notion "the February surprise." According to senior officials of both countries, the surprise is that the Mexican authorities, who have long been investigating the governor of Quintana Roo, Mario Villanueva Madrid, might move to indict him on drug-related charges sometime after Clinton's departure. Villanueva has repeatedly denied providing any support to the drug mafia that has flourished in Quintana Roo during his administration, but a Mexican federal judge last week denied the governor's request for information about the investigation against him. 
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