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Fighting Drugs With Wrong Battle Plan

Certification: Drop the rhetoric over a symbolic process and work with Mexico on how to combat our mutual problem.

March 02, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Given how little the process means, there was way too much controversy in Washington last week over whether President Clinton should certify to Congress that Mexico is cooperating with the U.S. government's war on drugs.

To begin with, the so-called certification process is no more than political symbolism. It gives members of Congress and administration officials a chance to talk tough about illegal drugs without doing much about them. The only meaningful sanction imposed on decertified nations is a U.S. vote against financial aid to them at the World Bank and other international lending agencies.

But that also means that when a particular country, like Mexico, has important trade or other financial links to the United States, it is unlikely to be decertified. That's what happened with Mexico when President Clinton decided on certification despite fierce opposition in Congress, which could be renewed this week. Last year there was roughly $140 billion in trade between the United States and Mexico--too much to risk for political symbolism.

Which is not to say that Mexico doesn't deserve opprobrium for its obvious failings in the war against drugs. Indeed, the evidence that drug lords have paid out millions of dollars in bribes to top government officials is stunning. But it was the Mexicans themselves who provided the evidence.

When President Ernesto Zedillo fired his top drug fighter two weeks ago, it was a remarkable gesture. Zedillo had put Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo in charge of Mexico's anti-drug campaign only 11 weeks earlier--itself an unusual step given how Mexican governments long have tried to keep the military out of civilian affairs. But the Mexican military is now considered the nation's most trustworthy security force, far cleaner than any civilian police force. So by sacking Gutierrez Rebollo after the general was accused of having taken bribes from a major cocaine dealer Zedillo was, in effect, acknowledging that drug trafficking now poses a serious national security problem for Mexico.

Yet instead of using the opportunity to offer more help to the Mexicans in dealing with what is now their problem as well as ours, most U.S. politicians jumped on the Gutierrez Rebollo case as proof that Mexico should be decertified. In other words, let's add insult to injury and then see if we can get the Mexicans to cooperate.

This nation should have learned by now that few countries in the world are amenable to the moralistic pressure that the United States likes to use as a diplomatic weapon. Consider how our lectures on human rights go unheeded in China. Mexico is not as big as China, but it is important to many sectors of the U.S. economy, and strategically located right on our border. Treating a close neighbor like a pariah can serve no useful purpose.

Ironically, one Norteamericano who knew this better than most was the U.S. drug agent whose murder is the reason for this annual certification charade--Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

A veteran agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration, Camarena was killed by a drug lord's henchmen 12 years ago in Guadalajara. More than any single incident in this country's long and usually futile fight against illegal drugs, Camarena's murder turned it into a "war." Yet all that the policymakers in Washington seemed to get from the Camarena case was evidence that Mexican drug kingpins could corrupt key police officials, since some of the suspects in the case were aided by Mexican federales. Any policeman or journalist who's worked in Mexico longer than a week could have told them that.

What they should have learned from the Camarena case is how to work in Mexico effectively. They also should have asked themselves why a powerful drug lord--who is now serving a 90-year sentence in a maximum security Mexican prison--was willing to risk everything by killing a U.S. drug agent. The answer is that Camarena was so damned good at what he did.

A Californian of Mexican heritage from the Imperial Valley, Camarena knew Mexico. As a police officer in Calexico, he learned that you get a lot more from Mexicans by talking their language and accepting them on their terms than by lecturing them or pushing them around. That was a key reason, according to his fellow DEA agents, that Camarena's Mexican contacts were intensely loyal to him.

Consider this passage from "Desperados," a book about the Camarena case by Time magazine writer Eileen Shannon:

"He paid his informants, but loyalty bought with dollars was an ephemeral thing. Kiki had learned that it was wise to make friends of these men, and to win over their sons and their fathers, their mothers and their wives. . . . Nobody else in the Guadalajara DEA office could match Kiki's charisma with informants. He had a way of convincing a man to screw up his courage and venture where he never dreamed he would go."

It is hard to imagine a less effective method of working with Mexicans than the decertification process. Being a public scold in Mexico just gets you branded a metiche (busybody). The United States would get a lot further waging the war that claimed Kiki Camarena's life by finding ways to cooperate with the nation he knew so well rather than bashing it


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