WASHINGTON — Mexico's ambassador to the United States said Wednesday that American presidential candidates are indulging in demagoguery to capitalize on voter fears of an unstoppable wave of Mexican illegal immigrants.
In a breakfast meeting with The Times' Washington Bureau, Ambassador Jesus Silva Herzog decried California Gov. Pete Wilson's aborted presidential campaign for manipulating the immigration issue for political gain.
Wilson's campaign commercials depicted "lane-runners"--Mexicans rushing across freeways into California--a practice Herzog called a "phenomenon" that no longer occurs.
He indicated that such appeals to emotion on the issue of immigration are found throughout U.S. politics.
Herzog also complained that American presidential candidates ignore the economic benefits that immigrants bring to the United States.
"Immigration is going to be an issue," Herzog said of the coming political debate. "But let's do it in a serious and responsible manner.
"In California, 84% of the labor force in the agricultural sector are Mexicans," he said. "I wonder what would happen if one day that flow of workers would be interrupted. I think the agricultural sector in California, which is one of the most important sectors in that state, would suffer very serious consequences."
On a recent visit to a farm in North Carolina, he said, "I asked the grower what would happen if you did not have those Mexican workers with you? He told me in a very simple manner, 'I would be out of business.' "
Herzog also denied that Colombia's Cali drug cartel has developed a major presence in Mexico--even while admitting that Mexico is a main shipping hub for Cali cocaine smuggled into the United States.
He acknowledged that the cartel is capable of landing commercial-size jets laden with cocaine in Mexico, apparently ending its reliance on smaller aircraft flying into rural areas in Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.
"There is no question that drug trafficking for Mexico is probably the No. 1 national security problem," Herzog said. "And there is no question that the drug-trafficking people are changing their mechanisms of distribution."
But he insisted that the presumption that the Cali cartel has moved into Mexico is "a complete exaggeration."
"There is no proof whatsoever that that is happening," he said.
U.S. officials responded that, while the Cali cartel itself does not have a major presence in Mexico, it has independent Mexican affiliates that handle shipments to the United States.
"I don't think we can say that Cali controls Mexican trafficking groups, or that they have undue influence in Mexico," one Clinton Administration official agreed. "It's more of a working partnership."
Herzog stressed that the Mexican government is sharing intelligence with the United States and hopes to acquire better equipment to keep pace with the smugglers.
"We had helicopters that were not fast enough; we had small airplanes that were so slow that, when they were able to get where the big planes had landed, the drugs had already left."