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National Perspective | RONALD BROWNSTEIN / WASHINGTON
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Bipartisan Support Mounts to End Mexico Certification in Drug War

March 03, 1997|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

It's fair to say that diplomatic euphemism isn't a real personal strong point for Thomas Constantine, the career cop running the Drug Enforcement Administration. At a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee hearing last week on Mexican corruption and the drug trade, his crisp, straightforward answers made him stand out like a cabby in a charm school.

Witnesses from the Justice Department and the Border Patrol deflected the committee's questions with mannered platitudes about "tangible results born of cooperation" and "clear progress in regaining control" of the border. Constantine had none of it. In his New York flatfoot's drone, he delivered an unrelenting indictment of Mexico's performance.

His bill of particulars was dizzying. Though Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo's government has fired more than 1,200 officials on corruption charges, Constantine said, none has ever been successfully prosecuted. Leaks to drug smugglers by corrupt Mexican officials have repeatedly "compromised" joint U.S.-Mexican task forces established in Ciudad Juarez, Monterrey and Tijuana.

Court papers filed in a case involving two drug-gang assassins apprehended in the United States indicate "that the state attorney general and almost 90% of the law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges in Tijuana and the State of Baja California . . . are on the payroll" of the smugglers. Meanwhile, slayings of law enforcement officials routinely go unsolved across Mexico, and the leaders of the major Mexican drug cartels "are living freely . . . and have suffered little, if any, inconvenience."

As for Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the Mexican government drug czar recently arrested for allegedly collaborating with Mexico's largest drug cartel, Constantine said: "My assumption is that any [information] available to him has been compromised completely."

It is in the midst of this swamp that President Clinton decided Friday to "certify" Mexico as fully cooperating in the struggle against drugs. With that ruling, Clinton rejected calls for sterner punishments: either flat-out decertification--which would have required him to cut off most foreign aid--or a middle course that would have labeled Mexico out of compliance while providing a "national interest" waiver to keep the aid flowing.

Mexico's certification reflected the widespread belief in the Clinton administration that sanctions would have triggered a fundamental breach in relations--just weeks before Clinton is scheduled for his first trip to Mexico. But Clinton's decision to avoid penalties this year may amount to little more than holding a lid on a boiling pot--with all the risk of eventual explosion that suggests.

In the near term, Clinton's ruling is likely to stand. Congress could still vote during the next 30 days to demand sanctions. But Clinton would inevitably veto such a resolution, and even congressional hard-liners acknowledge that they would have great difficulty attracting the two-thirds majority needed to override.

Yet the breadth of the bipartisan coalition that has instantly mobilized to overturn the certification testifies to an ominous change in the weather for Mexico. Last year, Bob Dole found little support, even among Republicans, when he called on Clinton not to certify Mexico. Now, even a steady procession of Democrats is urging the president to withhold certification.

Last year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was one of those who told Dole that decertification would be a mistake. Now McCain isn't so sure.

"I think that the merits of decertification are minimal," McCain said. "But at the same time, you just can't keep, in effect, condoning some of the things that are happening in a country that you care so much about."

McCain is ambivalent for good reason. Certifying Mexico as fully cooperating in the drug war is like certifying the world as flat: an insult to irrefutable facts. After all the Mexican narco-scandals jostling Clinton's own fund-raising difficulties on the front page, Mexico may read certification to mean that there is no level of corruption sufficient to trigger penalties.

Yet it's far from clear that sanctions would inspire a more serious attack on corruption in Mexico. Many experts believe that the most immediate effect would be to provoke an intense anti-American backlash from Mexicans who understandably point out that drugs wouldn't pour across the border without the magnet of unchecked U.S. demand.

One senior U.S. prosecutor with extensive experience along the border warns that such a "nationalist wave" would "cut the legs out" from Mexican officials supporting greater cooperation with the United States. On objective grounds, Mexico may not deserve certification, this prosecutor continues, "but the paradox is that [decertification] would backfire."

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