YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

U.S. -- Mexico: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Nationalist Outcry May Put Zedillo Up Against the Wall

March 09, 1997|M. Delal Baer | M. Delal Baer, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is director of the center's Mexico project

WASHINGTON — The current debate over decertifying Mexico for its shaky performance in the drug war boggles the mind and defies common sense. As Congress considers whether or not it will overturn President Bill Clinton's certification of Mexico, one congressional aide murmured, "it looks like you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a corrupt Mexican." It seems to be an open and shut case, and to return anything other than a guilty verdict would be hypocritical. But the question is not whether Mexico is infested with deep and widespread corruption of its law-enforcement agencies--it clearly is. The question is whether decertifying Mexico would help matters or backfire and make them worse.

How would you feel if you were Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and you took power only to find that you are commander in chief of a force infiltrated by Quislings and collaborators? You pull a string, nothing happens. You press a button, nothing happens. You don't know who is a friend and who is an enemy in your military and federal police and, worse, you are likely surrounded by more enemies than friends. And, to top it off, the one ally he thought he could rely on blames him, undermining the already drooping morale among loyal troops.

Who is to blame for the mess? The single-party regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that has controlled Mexico without accountability for more than 60 years is one culprit, of course. But that is a red herring. Traffickers are equally adept at infiltrating democracies in developing countries. The real issue is what happens when the multibillion-dollar U.S. market for illegal drugs collides with law enforcement in countries whose per-capita incomes are a fraction of our own.

If the United States is going to play the blame game, the whole picture must be taken in. If you were an honest Mexican, you just might be ticked off about the degenerate habits of your rich neighbors. Drug use is going up in the United States. The law-enforcement battle against drugs on America's mean streets was lost a long time ago. When is the last time you read about the interdiction of a big shipment or the capture of any major capo--American or Mexican--in the United States? By the way, how is the eradication effort going in California?

The media have done their share of fingerprinting. Every year during certification season, when reporters eager for a sexy story link up with disgruntled agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who are equally eager to vent their frustrations, the innocent and guilty alike get caught in the cross-fire. A rehash of rumors from raw DEA reports leaked to the big U.S newspapers is no substitute for hard intelligence or the sort of heroic police work that, done in secrecy, leads to real evidence and convictions in a court of law. Congress is about to make a very serious policy decision based on news clippings rather than evidence.

What would happen if all of Mexico's narcotics producers and shippers were halted? Would U.S demand shrivel up and disappear? Probably not. The price of drugs would shoot up and the supply routes would shift elsewhere. In fact, something very much like that happened in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, when the Reagan White House shut down the shipment routes through the Caribbean and Florida. In one of the all-time great examples of unintended consequences, we destabilized a neighbor when trafficking routes moved overland to Mexico.

Since then, Washington has encouraged the Mexican military to occupy ever more strategic posts in law enforcement to fill the vacuum left by corrupt police, hoping that the generals are cleaner than the police chiefs. Generals now control every critical operational post at a time when Mexico is going through a delicate transition to democracy and when the government in Mexico City is not strong.

The question, then, is whether anyone has really thought about the consequences--intended and unintended--of decertifying Mexico. For example:

* Let no one believe that decertification with a national-interest waiver is different from full decertification in terms of the damage done to bilateral relations. Decertification with a waiver would be an asteroid hit to U.S.-Mexico friendship.

Los Angeles Times Articles