MEXICO CITY — The United States is finding that drug-fighting and diplomacy mix awkwardly, if at all.
Efforts by the Reagan Administration to destroy narcotics crops and attack drug traffic in concert with Latin American and Caribbean governments have failed to achieve a significant reduction in the flow of drugs into the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
At the same time, the campaign has embroiled Washington in a series of government-to-government spats stretching from the Rio Grande to the southern slopes of the Andes.
"We're in a completely new level of activity," David Westrate, head of operations for the DEA, said in a telephone interview from Washington.
"Drug trafficking used to be a police issue. Only in recent years has it emerged as a political and diplomatic issue. That makes it much more complex."
Even in countries where U.S. influence is paramount and American aid is the main financial prop of the local government, supposed allies occasionally turn a deaf ear to pleas from Washington to crack down on drug smuggling. Sometimes, according a series of recent reports, they abet the trade.
"There always has been, and continues to be, a factor of corruption," Westrate said. "We go into this with our eyes wide open."
Focus on Consumption
The difficulties of reducing drug supplies abroad have prompted U.S. officials to consider whether more steps should be taken to battle demand at home.
"We have to get in the frame of mind where consumption is not tolerated," Westrate declared.
However, he added, the effort to destroy drugs "at the source" remains a key goal of U.S. anti-narcotics policy. The DEA operates in 45 foreign countries in programs with the host governments that include killing drug crops and investigating drug kingpins.
U.S. officials consider cocaine to be America's leading drug problem, and South America is the sole supplier of cocaine to the United States. There have been some reports of progress against marijuana smuggling but none against heroin.
Frustration could grow about March 1, when the Administration is scheduled to certify to Congress which of the world's countries are doing their best to fight drug traffic and which are not.
Countries deemed uncooperative may lose foreign aid and face the prospect of the United States' vetoing help from international assistance and lending agencies, among other sanctions.
In some cases, however, the Administration is expected to consider a country uncooperative, yet still recommend against sanctions because punishment might create a bigger problem by harming U.S. national interests, both financial and military.
In a sense, the United States is faced with uncomfortable choices: to punish some countries may or may not produce better anti-drug efforts, but sanctions could bring unwanted consequences.
Mexico offers an example of the pitfalls. It is the sole Latin supplier of heroin to the U.S. market and one of the main marijuana producers, DEA sources say. It has also become an important way station for cocaine shipped north from South America.
A recent congressional report stated that drug traffic from Mexico has not been reduced despite joint Mexican-U.S. efforts to eradicate drug crops.
U.S. officials complain that corruption in Mexico hampers efforts to reduce drug traffic. Yet, while the final U.S. certification report due March 1 is expected to hold that Mexico's narcotics-control program is deficient, it is also expected to recommend against invoking the sanctions, a State Department official has said.
Sanctions would also carry the risk of crippling Mexico's ability to pay off its foreign debt. This development, among other consequences, would threaten the financial stability of the major American banks that have made large loans to Mexico.
Further south, drugs are a centerpiece in a political struggle in Panama, a country considered of strategic importance to the United States because both the Panama Canal and important American military bases are located there.
Panama's de facto ruler, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, continues to resist domestic opponents who demand that he step down and allow honest elections. The United States has sided with Noriega's foes, and two federal grand juries in Florida have indicted Noriega on charges of drug smuggling, money laundering and racketeering.
These charges against Noriega did not come without embarrassment to the United States.
Noriega was able to produce letters of praise from the DEA, thanking him for his cooperation in heading off cocaine shipments moving through Panama.
Moreover, a chief witness against Noriega, Jose I. Blandon, the former Panamanian consul in New York, told a Senate hearing that Noriega has been on the payroll of the CIA and was occasionally let in on sensitive security matters.