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Mexico, Insulted, Rethinks Its Role in U.S. Drug War

May 01, 1988|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

MEXICO CITY — When the U.S. Senate voted to "decertify" Mexico's efforts in the drug war, not much thought--if any--was given to what Mexico's reaction might be. What counted was American legislators' appearing to look tough to American voters. To Mexicans, it was a gratuitous insult, and now there is deliberation on how Mexico should react.

Mexican officials have responded primarily by remarking on the United States' responsibility in the drug crisis and its incapacity to deal with the problem other than by blaming others for its own weakness. Frequently, the question is: By what right does the United States sit in judgment over other nations' efforts?

So far, there has been no official talk of responding with direct action, which only heightens the sense that Mexico's cooperation in U.S. drug-law enforcement is a no-win policy. Now, calls for action are proliferating in Mexico, and they have a certain logic to them.

The most obvious move would be to expel or at least significantly limit the presence of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico. To many Mexicans it has always been insulting to acknowledge that their country is one of the very few in the world that allows a foreign police force to operate on its territory--something that the United States would be the last to allow. Even its supporters here admit that this policy, with its dangers and negative consequences for Mexico, makes sense only in a climate of cooperation, not one of confrontation such as the U.S. Congress seems to be bent on achieving.

It is doubtful that the Mexican government will expel the DEA from the country. It may not even take the other possible retaliatory move of rejecting the $14.5 million in U.S. aid for drug enforcement purposes (the only American assistance Mexico receives at all). And despite the pressure in Mexico to do something more than just talk, serenity in the face of U.S. election-time provocation may be the wisest policy at this time. But the cumulative effect of the constant tensions in U.S.-Mexican relations over drugs is leaving many in Mexico to rethink the country's entire drug policy.

Mexico has always recognized that it has a drug traffic and production problem, and officials have stated that Mexico is waging war on drugs essentially for national reasons, not as a consequence of U.S. pressure. But it would be naive to deny that a greater effort was expected also to eliminate a key point of friction in U.S.-Mexican relations. Many in Mexico believe the higher priority that drug enforcement now has on the national agenda stems from American insistence on it; cocaine trans-shipment from Colombia is a problem in Mexico, mainly at the regional level, but it is not the most important problem that Mexico faces.

Increasingly, the country is being backed into a corner. It is devoting greater resources, both human and financial, to drug enforcement. It is losing more lives and incurring greater risks, basically by involving the armed forces in a struggle that threatens their integrity and magnifies their role in society. Just two weeks ago the army was implicated in violent--and as yet unexplained--incidents involving suspected drug trafficking in the state of Sonora.

And yet recognition of Mexico's effort, and an ensuing reduction in bilateral tensions, is further away than ever. The Reagan Administration's and Congress' opinion of Mexican drug enforcement is the same as--or even lower than--it was before the latest period of drug-related friction began in 1985.

Given the obvious political motivations behind the U.S. legislators' behavior, it is becoming increasingly difficult to accept the rationale for Mexico's present policy. Greater effort on the drug matter will not bring more understanding and sympathy, because the insufficiency of the effort was never the problem in the first place.

There is a logical temptation in Mexico to think that the game is not worth the candle. If the drug problem is viewed as essentially an American problem, at least as far as addiction is concerned; if the security problems that it creates in Mexico are undeniable, yet still of a regional nature; if the costs of waging an all-out war on drugs are perceived as exorbitant, taking resources from other, more urgent tasks, and altering the basic equilibrium of Mexican society; and if, finally, all that the country gets for its efforts is more opprobrium and hostility from the United States, the conclusion to draw is not very difficult to formulate. Many in Mexico will not hesitate to do so.

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