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Wrong Way To Motivate Mexico

Stop Congress's move to decertify

By an overwhelming vote last week, the House International Affairs Committee initiated a congressional effort to overturn President Clinton's decision to certify Mexico as a fully cooperating ally in the war on drugs. Although this endeavor is well intended, it is sorely misguided and threatens to undermine precisely the objective it purports to promote - reducing the ever-expanding supply of drugs on the streets of America.

Members of Congress who support this bill argue that the president's certification was mistaken, given recent revelations that have raised serious doubts about the sincerity of Mexican attempts to crack down on narcotics smuggling. They also suggest that their proposal to waive the economic sanctions which normally accompany decertification should limit the negative impact of this action on the broader US relationship with a strategically important neighbor. In short, Congress believes that if the US uses a bit of coercive pressure, Mexico will increase its cooperation in the drug war. This reasoning displays a very limited understanding of Mexico and the Mexican people.

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Congress is correct to emphasize that Mexico's counternarcotics measures have been uneven at best. Although Mexico has begun to extradite leading traffickers to face prosecution in the US and has significantly increased drug seizures and arrests, its successes have been more than matched by blatant failures. Collaboration between Mexico's former drug czar and a prominent drug cartel has, by all accounts, badly damaged the drug-fighting capacity of the Mexican attorney general's office, and it may have compromised undercover agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration operating in Mexico. The unexplained release of a prominent money-launderer, announced only after certification was approved, puts into plain view Mexico's limited ability to keep traffickers in prison.

But the strategy favored by Congress would make matters worse. As the decision to certify recognizes, any US attempt to use an explicit threat of economic sanctions to "encourage" Mexican cooperation will almost certainly be counterproductive.

When Mexicans look at the US, they see a neighbor that has historically used force to coerce Mexico into adhering to US policy aims, with little regard for Mexican needs. Any Mexican on the street knows the US absorbed half of Mexican territory following a war in the mid-19th century. Mexican schoolchildren learn of the occasion in the early 20th century when US troops invaded Mexico or when the US government used economic coercion to influence Mexican policy. More recently, the use of political and economic leverage to encourage Mexico to take actions that further US interests has perpetuated the perception that the US is a bully.

THIS experience has imbued Mexicans with a deep-seated sensitivity toward any US action that appears to compel Mexican collaboration through force. This means any public threat of US retribution for shortcomings in Mexico's drug-fighting efforts will generate more resentment than cooperation in Mexico.

The Mexican aversion to US pressure in the drug war also reflects a perception that the certification process is really a matter of US domestic politics. Mexicans believe that US politicians, unable to win the war on drugs at home, have used the certification process to transfer responsibility for their policy failure abroad. The real issue in the certification process is not what is best for the counternarcotics efforts but how US politicians can best attract the support they need to ensure reelection or a run at higher office. Mexico sees itself as merely a convenient punching bag in the political struggle.

Whether or not Americans believe this Mexican view of certification has merit is irrelevant. What matters is that this is the way Mexicans see it. As a consequence, the congressional attempt to overturn Clinton's decision to certify Mexican cooperation in the drug war has unleashed Mexico's latent resentment of the US.

The best way to win Mexico's full cooperation in the battle against illegal narcotics is not to chastise Mexico publicly for its shortcomings but to encourage energetically the sincere efforts of the Zedillo administration to eradicate the corrupting influence of drugs in Mexican society and politics.

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* Pamela K. Starr is a visiting professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coeditor of a forthcoming book on political and economic reform in Latin America.

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