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Senate Resolution Blasts Mexico's Anti-Drug Efforts

Congress: As expected, measure stops short of urging decertification, signaling victory for President Clinton.

March 21, 1997|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday berated Mexico for "ineffective and insufficient progress" in the war on drugs but as expected held back from challenging President Clinton's certification of Mexico as a cooperative ally in the worldwide narcotics battle.

The vote on the resolution--a compromise hammered out by key senators and the administration's foreign policy team--was 94 to 5.

Its overwhelming passage could be counted as a political victory for Clinton, who did not want Congress to rile U.S.-Mexican relations by overturning his certification.

As a practical matter, the vote ended any attempt by Congress this year to decertify Mexico, an action that would have caused economic sanctions to take effect. Both houses begin their Easter recess today and will resume their sessions after the deadline for reversing the president on certification.

Clinton issued his ruling at the end of February, and Congress has no more than 30 days to change it.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned the administration that there could be "a major battle next year" if the president ignores the resolution and Mexican officials do not provide evidence of major reform of the corruption within its anti-narcotics agencies.

The House passed a much tougher resolution last week but now must decide whether to accept the Senate version and send it to Clinton or seek a compromise. The House resolution, which Clinton pledged to veto, would have given Mexico three months to improve its drug-fighting efforts or then face decertification.

Under the Senate resolution, the president would be required to issue a report by September on the progress that both the United States and Mexico have made on a series of key steps in their joint war on drugs.

These steps include dismantling drug trafficking cartels, strengthening the relationship between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries, increasing joint patrols on the border, extraditing criminals from one country to the other, implementing money laundering laws, eradicating illegal drug crops in both countries and helping Mexico "identify, remove and prosecute corrupt officials at all levels of government."

Barry R. McCaffrey, the U.S. narcotics czar who took part in the talks that produced the Senate resolution, hailed it as "a tremendous outcome of many serious discussions."

He said that, while its passage tells "both nations we expect concrete results, it did put the issue of certification behind us."

McCaffrey said that he discussed the resolution with top Mexican officials during the day and told them it is "a good outcome that . . . respects the sovereignty of Mexico."

Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Jose Angel Gurria Trevino called the Senate decision a vote for cooperation and a "triumph of reason."

Saying his country still opposes the U.S. practice of certifying those countries it considers allies in the drug war, Gurria said Mexico would accept the Senate's compromise. He said both nations need to get on with tackling the real enemy--drug traffickers.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) assured senators that they would not be helpless if they did not approve of the president's report in September. "If we don't get action," he said, "the Senate has a powerful weapon. It's called the power of the purse."

The administration's anxiety about U.S.-Mexican relations was reflected in the major players that it sent to Capitol Hill to negotiate the Senate resolution. The negotiations included National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and McCaffrey. At the last minute, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussed the issue with Lott.

"I was shocked by all the people who got involved," Lott said.

The Senate negotiating team was led by Sens. Feinstein, Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). In fact, according to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the initiative for a compromise came from the senators.

The president--despite having called senators to the White House to meet with key members of the Cabinet last week--realized only belatedly that he was facing "a runaway train" toward decertification, Lugar told reporters at lunch.

Hutchison and Feinstein "saved the bacon on this when the White House was headed into the drink," Lugar said.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this story.

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