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Mexico Drug War Gets Mixed Review

Narcotics: White House report cites corruption but notes new laws against money laundering.

September 16, 1997|STANLEY MEISLER and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The White House, in an eagerly awaited report, has concluded that the war against drugs is still hampered by corruption and lack of punishment of drug criminals in Mexico.

But the Clinton administration insists in its study that the Mexican government has taken significant steps to improve its performance. And the report, largely drafted by the office of federal anti-drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, maintains that Mexico's movement toward democracy--described as a "process of profound political transition"--eventually will help make the country a strong partner with the United States in battling drug trafficking.

The report, delivered to a few key senators Monday night and obtained by The Times, is to be released today. It is an outgrowth of the controversial process that requires the administration to punish major drug-producing or drug-transshipping countries unless U.S. officials certify every year that these nations are cooperating in the war on drugs.

Several members of Congress protested when the administration certified Mexico early this year despite drug scandals involving past and present Mexican officials. One case led to the arrest of Mexico's anti-drug czar.

But Congress could not agree on overturning the certification, and President Clinton escaped the major embarrassment of Congress punishing Mexico on the eve of his visit there in May. As a goodwill gesture, he agreed to a suggestion that he deliver an interim report on Mexico's progress in the drug war.

A Mexican government official familiar with the report said, "If you follow the report from top to bottom, you see how it stresses the increasing cooperation of the two governments."

For instance, the report hails Mexico for recent laws that have made it a crime to launder money, and it notes that the Mexican government has made it easier for U.S. law enforcement officials to prevent planes from transporting drugs into this country. In some cases, Mexico has even allowed U.S. aircraft to pursue narcotics transport planes into Mexican airspace.

But, the report goes on, "Mexico's law enforcement institutions are afflicted by corruption and in some instances have been penetrated by the very cartels they seek to target."

"Mexican counter-drug authorities face an uphill struggle against widespread corruption," the report says. "Drug trafficking criminals use their immense wealth, power, and capacity for violence to bribe or otherwise neutralize the effectiveness of law enforcement and other government officials."

Even here, however, the report sees hope, declaring that the government of President Ernesto Zedillo has worked hard to deal with this corruption by launching investigations, dismissing corrupt officials and setting up new systems for screening government personnel.

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The report says cooperation between the police of both countries "is constrained by a lack of mutual confidence and understandable political sensitivity to cross-border cooperation."

This comment appeared to reflect the lack of trust by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers in their Mexican counterparts, as well as a feeling among Mexicans that the DEA often intrudes on Mexican sovereignty.

On the knotty issue of extradition, the report complains that "extraditions of Mexican nationals on narcotics-related charges remain difficult and not in step with comparable U.S. extraditions to Mexico."

But the report says cooperation should improve, since the two countries "have agreed to negotiate a protocol to our bilateral extradition treaty which would allow temporary surrender of suspects for trial in one country when charges are pending in the other."

Tribute is paid to the Zedillo administration's efforts to eradicate drug crops and seize illicit drugs. While the figures cited in the study are not "absolute measures of political will," the report says, they are "valid indicators of a government's commitment."

"In each year since 1994," the report concludes, "Mexico has increased the quantity of illegal drugs seized and led the world in destruction of illegal drug crops."

The report predicts that as the Mexican government becomes more open and accountable, it will have to deal with the public's anger over drugs.

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