WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration has singled out a drug case in Mexico as a test of whether Mexican officials will live up to their pledge of a new level of cooperation, a promise made in negotiations preceding the president's decision last week to formally declare that this nation's southern neighbor is fully cooperating in the war on drugs.
Administration officials are pushing for the extradition of Oscar Malherbe de Leon, the alleged chief of the notorious Gulf drug cartel who recently was arrested in Mexico and is under indictment in Houston.
"The test will be the [extradition of] Oscar Malherbe de Leon," said Robert Gelbard, an assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.
The issue of this extradition came up as Gelbard and other senior administration officials made the rounds Thursday on Capitol Hill, trying to head off a congressional bid to overturn the president's declaration of Mexico's cooperation in the drug war, a legally required, annual process called certification.
In the first vote on the issue, a House panel Thursday voted, 27 to 5, to overturn Mexico's certification.
The full House is likely to pass the measure overwhelmingly, but the administration still hopes to sway the Senate, congressional and administration officials said. Clinton is prepared to veto the legislation if it passes, a senior administration official said.
Malherbe's extradition is an example of one of the steps U.S. officials hope that Mexico will make to prove its commitment to making progress in the drug war and, in the process, to derail the decertification push in Congress.
But the Mexican attorney general's office has said Malherbe must first be put on trial in Mexico on the array of charges he faces there--including homicide, drug trafficking and illegal export of cocaine and marijuana--before extradition will be considered.
The Mexican government has resisted extraditing its nationals but last year started doing so.
Gelbard said U.S. officials are aware of the Mexican position but are still urging Malherbe's extradition "as soon as possible." He added that, if hasty action is not taken, U.S. officials "will be unhappy."
Clinton certified Mexico as an ally in fighting drugs despite recent scandals that had linked past and current high-ranking Mexican officials to narcotics-related corruption.
To try to avoid a showdown between the White House and Congress on a highly sensitive foreign policy issue, senior administration officials are blitzing Congress, attempting to sway people to the administration's thinking.
Clinton has also started raising the issue in conversations with members of Congress, a senior White House official said.
Top administration officials, including the president's national security advisor and his White House anti-drug chief, also traveled to Mexico on Wednesday to stress the urgency for tangible results in fighting drugs, White House officials said.
Administration officials hope, "in the course of a week to 10 days," to tell Congress about steps the Mexicans are taking in the drug war, Gelbard said.
Areas where U.S. officials expect to see movement by the Mexicans include implementation of legislation aimed at stemming money laundering; new assurances of immunity for U.S. law enforcement officers who work across the border and carry weapons; and the extraditions to this country of Malherbe and several other suspected drug lords.
The pressure on Mexican officials to show fresh evidence of their determination to fight illegal drugs developed after Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's top drug official, was arrested and formally charged with having ties to a drug mafia. His arrest--just 10 days before the deadline for certification--sparked protests in Congress, which had paid scant attention to the certification process before that.
"If Gen. Gutierrez's arrest had not come up, none of this would be happening," Gelbard said.
Thursday's vote by the House International Relations Committee in favor of decertification was the first warning shot from Congress.
"Not only are we changing Mexico's grade [on the drug-war front], we are also sending a message to this administration that its international narcotics control strategy is in shambles," said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), who chairs the committee.
Under U.S. law, decertifying a nation calls for it to lose benefits such as U.S. support for its loan requests to international lenders, such as the World Bank.
But the legislation approved by the House panel--one of at least four bills circulating on Capitol Hill--would allow the president to waive imposition of economic sanctions on national security grounds.
"Decertification says we're serious," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "The waiver says we value the relationship and want to work together to solve what is a common problem."
Times staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City contributed to this report.