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Operation Casablanca: End of a Beautiful Friendship?

Diplomacy: Despite repeated efforts, hard feelings over U.S. money-laundering sting in Mexico refuse to go away.

June 24, 1998|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For Mexican diplomats in Washington, dealing with the United States government too often is like wrestling with a hydra, the Greek mythical monster of many heads. So many U.S. agencies and institutions concern themselves with Mexico, no sooner does a diplomat finish business with one than another pops up snarling.

The latest example involves the controversial money-laundering sting, Operation Casablanca.

Mexican and State Department diplomats worked diligently for two weeks to soothe ill feelings and smooth relations after the sting, only to have Congress rise up to worsen them.

Mexico has been riled all over again by a pointed resolution approved Monday by a 404-3 vote in the U.S. House. The resolution praises Operation Casablanca, extols the U.S. agents who operated clandestinely on Mexican soil "in peril of severe injury or death" and admonishes the Clinton administration never to extradite them to Mexico if indicted there.

The resolution prompted the Mexican Foreign Ministry to issue a statement that it "profoundly laments the adoption . . . of a . . . resolution that aims to legitimize undercover action in third countries, including Mexico, with or without the knowledge of the country's authorities."

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who sponsored the resolution, told the House that, as a result of Operation Casablanca, "Mexico can no longer remain in a state of denial about complicity of their financial institutions with the drug trade. . . . While their shock is predictable, their threats against U.S. law enforcement agents . . . [are] truly outrageous."

The House resolution was the second congressional action to upset Mexican officials.

The first came in late May, when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sent a sharp letter to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

Mexicans were astounded at the insulting tone of the letter in which Lott, throwing the quotes of some Mexican officials back at Zedillo, said Operation Casablanca "is not 'inadmissible' or a 'violation' of your sovereignty. . . . It should be welcomed by all governments interested in combating those who profit from trafficking in illegal narcotics."

For a couple of weeks before the House passed the resolution, a kind of truce had suppressed public recriminations over the issue.

In Operation Casablanca, undercover U.S. Customs agents in Mexico, enticed Mexican bankers into accepting bribes to convert drug profits into legitimate bank accounts. The sting, announced in May, led to the arrest of 167 people, including 26 Mexican bankers.

The announcement enraged Mexican officials because the U.S. agents had operated within the country without authorization and because sting operations--in which potential criminals are lured by phony bribes--are illegal in Mexico. Some Mexican officials said they would indict and seek the extradition of the U.S. agents.

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