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Mexico, U.S. Ties Warm in New Era

Americas: A change of leaders has mellowed the nations' relationship, allowing for better cooperation on issues from border policy to crime-fighting.

July 07, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH and ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — Cross-border cooperation between the United States and Mexico, on issues as diverse as the environment, fugitives, illegal immigration and drugs, has vastly improved under the new administrations of George W. Bush and Vicente Fox, officials in both countries agree.

U.S.-Mexican teamwork at the top levels of government is beginning to pay important dividends. For instance, when U.S. narcotics agents pounced on suspected cocaine traffickers last month in several American cities, the operation didn't stop at the border. Mexican police followed up with raids in Monterrey and Mexico City, capturing 14 money-laundering suspects.

Despite such successes, daunting obstacles to cross-border cooperation remain. On the thorny issues of drug trafficking and immigration, in particular, corruption in Mexico and mistrust in the U.S. prevent the full intelligence-sharing needed to tackle the smuggling empires head-on.

And in other areas, such as trade, powerful constituencies in both countries are hindering efforts at closer cooperation. Just last week, the Bush administration suffered an embarrassing blow to its efforts to further free trade between the two countries when the House of Representatives, citing safety concerns, voted to block Mexican trucks from traveling freely in the U.S., even though the president had supported such unfettered access.

Nonetheless, the moment is propitious: Mexican President Fox commands wide popularity thanks to his victory last July over the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years. Fox vowed to attack the corruption that had scarred the PRI's rule--and had fed U.S. mistrust of any serious cooperation with Mexico.

Bush, who as governor of Texas forged a strong relationship with his Mexican neighbors, is eager to achieve some victories on foreign policy, not otherwise his strength.

The combination of a new Mexican democratic legitimacy and a sympathetic new U.S. president has generated momentum for progress. The two sides have outlined an ambitious agenda for the years ahead that could fundamentally change the way the neighbors treat each other.

"It's amazing the level of attention we're receiving," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, an expert on U.S.-Mexican relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "A [Mexican] friend of mine in Washington says that when he calls a U.S. government agency now, he's treated as if he had a British accent. So yes, we are enjoying a honeymoon. Mexico has become suitably politically correct."

The cooperation is quickly going beyond generalities and principles, addressing practical details of contentious issues that have caused repeated rifts in past years.

For example, the United States and Mexico recently announced a joint approach to improve safety for migrants crossing the U.S. border illegally. The agreement calls for a set of specific joint search-and-rescue measures, as well as a policy review: The United States will reconsider programs such as "Operation Gatekeeper" on the California-Mexico border that have pushed migrants into the desert, and Mexico will look at ways to prevent migrants from crossing in the most dangerous areas.

Other areas also are getting new focus. In March, the two countries negotiated a deal on the contentious issue of water use along the border. For years, Texas farmers had complained that Mexico was failing to meet its commitment to release a minimum amount of water from its headwater tributaries into the Rio Grande, causing severe shortages of irrigation water. The agreement calls for Mexico to increase its provision of water. That deal is being implemented this summer.

More important, the accord requires the two countries to begin long-term joint planning for the entire Rio Grande basin, a move that environmentalists and farmers alike have been seeking for years.

The Fox government has also increased the capture and hand-over of fugitives who have fled from the U.S. to Mexico. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, Mexico has caught and deported 43 fugitives suspected of federal crimes, compared with 17 in all of fiscal 2000, according to the FBI. U.S. officials have worked closely with Mexican authorities to improve coordination in tracking down fugitives.

Extraditions of suspected drug traffickers from Mexico, a far more complex legal procedure than deportation, also are up sharply, thanks in part to a Mexican Supreme Court ruling in January declaring extradition to the U.S. constitutional.

Still, U.S. officials and Washington-based experts on Mexico warn that the honeymoon will only go as far as Mexican anti-corruption efforts are deep.

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