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Clinton 'Encouraged' by Mexico's New Anti-Drug Unit

Crime: Issues surrounding narcotics control are expected to be on agenda during president's visit.

May 02, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton said Thursday that he considers it "very encouraging" that Mexico is replacing its corrupt anti-narcotics unit with a force of rigorously tested agents.

In a telephone interview just days before his departure to Mexico, Costa Rica and Barbados, Clinton stressed that he expects to see additional progress on drug-control issues during his visit.

Clinton said that Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo "and his team are committed to trying to work with us," adding that both countries have "a huge stake in this anti-drug effort."

"Obviously, we're trying to keep drugs from being imported into the United States," the president said, while Mexico is "trying to keep the narco-traffickers from undermining the integrity of their democracy and the long-term success and stability of their society."

Specifically, Clinton said he expects to resolve a long-standing dispute between Mexican and U.S. officials over whether agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration can carry their weapons when they cross the border into Mexico to do their work.

U.S.-based DEA agents assigned to cross-border work are now restricted to the U.S. side because their superiors are worried about their safety in Mexico.

"We are committed to the safety of our law enforcement personnel, and we're working with the government of Mexico to make sure we can assure their security," Clinton said. "I feel that we will be able to resolve that."

A senior White House official later said that details of the still-developing agreement will be made available before or during the president's visit. But, the official said, the dispute will not be resolved until U.S. officials are convinced that terms of a deal will enable them to "protect our people satisfactorily."

Clinton's visit to Mexico, the first in his presidency, comes at a time when U.S.-Mexican relations have been strained on both sides--by U.S. concerns about high-level corruption in Mexican anti-narcotics forces and by Mexican worries about the impact of new U.S. welfare and immigration laws on Mexican nationals who live in the United States.

But in an early indication of Mexico's determination to appear cooperative during Clinton's visit, the Mexican government announced Wednesday that it was dismantling its corruption-plagued anti-narcotics force and creating a replacement unit with tough recruitment requirements.

The annual process by which the president decides whether to "certify" Mexico as an ally in the drug war was greatly complicated in February when Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the man who was then Mexico's top anti-drug official, was arrested on charges of taking bribes from drug lords. His arrest revealed corruption at the highest levels of Mexico's anti-drug forces, and U.S. officials demanded loudly that Mexico institute a process for checking the backgrounds of its anti-narcotics agents.

Only 60 of the 107 agents who applied for the new force passed the required psychological, drug-detection and lie-detector tests and were accepted into the force, Mexican officials said.

The recruits' personal finances will also be investigated to verify that they are not in collusion with drug dealers. They will receive higher salaries and better benefits than previous agents to deter them from accepting bribes.

In addition to improved collaboration in anti-drug efforts, issues of trade, environmental disputes and Mexican concerns about new U.S. immigration laws--which Mexico fears will spark mass deportations--are also expected to figure prominently during the president's visit.

Clinton said he will defend the immigration laws.

"We have to respect human rights and not have any kind of discriminatory treatment or massive deportations," the president said. "But this new law will give us tools we need to try to increase the integrity of our immigration system so that we can continue to maintain support for legal immigration but be more effective in deterring illegal immigration."

He said the measures enable the government to boost border-control efforts, toughen enforcement of immigration laws at workplaces and deport criminals and others subject to deportation who come into contact with the government.

Overall, however, the president hopes to use his visit to send a positive message to the American people about their neighbors across the southern border.

"If you compare our relationship with Mexico today, there's no question that we're stronger today," Clinton said.

The North American Free Trade Agreement brought the countries closer together commercially, and Clinton's decision to provide a massive loan to Mexico during its 1995 monetary crisis also bolstered the relationship, the president argued.

"I think those things ought to be seen as enormous positives, bespeaking a new partnership," he added.

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