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Border Busybodies

May 18, 1986

In Mexican slang, a metiche is a meddlesome troublemaker or busybody. Metiche is probably the kindest word being used in Mexico City these days to describe Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who orchestrated hearings on Capitol Hill last week that put relations between Mexico and the United States--often testy under the best of circumstances--at their lowest point in years.

As chairman of the Senate's subcommitee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Helms is often as frustrated with Mexico, as any U.S. official who deals with that country gets. Mexicans have a fierce national pride, and one way their political leaders show it is to stake out different foreign policy positions from those taken by their powerful neighbor to the north. A case in point, that grates on Helms right-wing sensibilities, is Mexico's refusal to support the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America. So Helms used his hearings to get back at the Mexicans by focusing on every difference between Mexico and the United States--drug smuggling, the debt Mexico owes U.S. banks, illegal aliens, official corruption, Central America. Helms has been lambasting Mexico to his heart's content and some Reagan Administration officials have played along.

U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab was the worst example. In a discussion of drug trafficking and official corruption in Mexico, Von Raab accused a Mexican governor of growing marijuana and opium poppies on his private farms, and said these dope plantations are guarded by the Mexican army. While no one doubts that serious official corruption can be found in Mexico, the manner in which Von Raab's made his allegations was irresponsible. Only a week before Von Raab spoke out, U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Messe met with his Mexican counterpart to discuss the international drug problem. The meetings were frank to the point of being blunt, but Mexican officials say that U.S. suspicions about the Mexican governor never came up.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 20, 1986 Home Edition Metro Part 2 Page 4 Column 4 Letters Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
An editorial in the May 18 edition of The Times mistakenly referred to Mexico's foreign debt as $100 million. The figure should have been $100 billion.

The reaction in Mexico to the Helms hearings was swift and predictable. Even the opposition press rallied, out of national pride, to defend the government of President Miguel de la Madrid. The Mexican government filed a formal protest with the State Department, asking if Helms and Von Raab's views represent the official position of the United States. Clearly they do not, but both the State Department and White House should make that point as emphatically as they know how. It would be especially helpful if President Reagan were to personally take a hand in calming this situation before it gets any worse.

Neighbors as closely bound as Mexico and the United States usually find ways to move past occasional flaps like this, so we have confidence that Helms and Von Raab have done no lasting damage. But it would help avoid similar problems in the future if political leaders in this country who deal with Mexico kept in mind the incredible difficulties that nations is facing now, and is likely to be burdened with for the balance of this century.

De la Madrid is struggling valiantly, and by all accounts honestly, with a foreign debt of $100 million at a time of severe recession, falling oil prices and political instability throughout the Caribbean Basin. It is a tribute to the flexibility of the Mexican system that the country has remained so peaceful--calm which is as important to the United States as it is to Mexico. Any balanced analysis of the current Mexican scene cannot but focus on the many serious problems Mexico is facing, but it should also not overlook the positive efforts Mexico has made to deal with those problems. If U.S. leaders keep their view of Mexico in balance, they can help keep relations between the two nations in balance, even when metiches like Helms stir up trouble.

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