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Drugs and the Mexican Crisis

IN mid-May, eight members of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's Cabinet flew to Washington to confer with their United States counterparts on trade, immigration, law enforcement, and labor issues. The Mexicans sought to convince the White House, Congress, and the business community that they had stabilized their recession-swept economy and that Mexico again offered ''exceptionally bright'' investment opportunities. Yet action at home to forge a common front against this nation's 18 major drug cartels will prove more effective in attracting capital than a couple of days of bilateral parleys.

On May 10, gunmen murdered Leobardo Larios, former attorney general of western Jalisco State, as he left his Guadalajara home. His death sparked fears that drug mafiosi and their political cronies had resumed the slaying of high-level elites that began two years ago when Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo died in an apparent shootout between rival drug traffickers. In fact, Larios had investigated the cardinal's unsolved murder, which was the first of three killings that spooked investors, spurred billions of dollars in capital flight, and threw Mexico's economy into a tailspin.

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Mr. Zedillo got off to a fast start in his war against drug lords by naming Antonio Lozano Garcia, a highly respected activist in the opposition National Action Party, as federal attorney general. Mr. Lozano, in turn, has reorganized and professionalized his office, which had five chiefs between 1988 and 1994. He has also pledged to replace bad actors in the 3,063-member Federal Judicial Police (PJF) -- widely scorned as a ''cesspool of corruption'' -- with loyal professionals integrated into a career civil service.

Meanwhile, the chief executive has moved to raise the standards for judges, who too often succumb to payoffs. ''Judicial reform is crucial to the rule of law,'' says Zedillo.

The executive branch cannot wage the antidrug battle alone. It's time for the Mexican Congress, which yearns to be more than a presidential rubber stamp, to pitch in. The passage of several statutes, for example, would greatly assist Zedillo and Lozano in their uphill fight against obscenely wealthy foes, while facilitating US-Mexican cooperation in the antidrug campaign. These include:

r Authorizing the introduction in criminal cases of evidence derived from informants and court-approved wiretaps;

r Passing a RICO-style conspiracy law.

r Strengthening the statute on money-laundering.

r Banning (or strictly regulating) chemical precursors used to produce synthetic mind-distorting drugs like metamphetamines and amphetamines.

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Several of these proposals will raise the hackles of local politicos, a number of whom have lucrative ties to the underground. Some cringe at the prospect of becoming the target of beefed-up law enforcement themselves. A few anticipate that new laws will ignite turf battles among Mexico's national and state police agencies. Still others resist giving intrusive new investigative tools to corrupt cops whose salaries have shrunk 50 percent since December.

No panacea exists. Yet until legislators reform the criminal code, authorities stand little chance of apprehending, much less convicting, most drug kingpins. Only a concerted effort by the president, by the attorney general, and by Congress will enable the government to seize the initiative from the narcos whose crimes snuff out not only lives but also the prospect for renewed economic growth.

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