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US-Mexico ties again face a key drug test

Mexico's big antidrug plan arrives in time for Clinton visit Monday. USreport on Mexican effort due March 1.

As sure as February's Oscar nominations in the US and tamales in Mexico, this is the month when relations between the two countries turn especially on the international problem of illegal drugs.

The new $500 million antidrug war Mexico announced last week has "nothing to do" with the US government's annual review of antidrug efforts by drug-producing countries, according to Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa.

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Yet Mexico's antidrug efforts are sure to figure prominently when President Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo meet Monday for a one-day summit in Merida, Mexico.

The review or "certification" process reaches a crescendo on March 1, by which time the White House must submit to Congress its report card on the cooperation of drug-producing countries in combating drug trafficking. A country must be certified or face possible economic sanctions such as loss of US aid.

US-Mexico cooperation against the drug trade was thrown for a loop last May when the US announced the results of a huge undercover drug-money-laundering investigation. Mexico was incensed that part of the code-named Casablanca operation was carried out inside Mexico - and without informing Mexican officials.

Feathers were ruffled on both sides of the border after President Zedillo publicly criticized Casablanca, a move that drew a fiery - and equally public - letter from US Senate majority leader Trent Lott criticizing Zedillo for not supporting US efforts against drug traffickers. The central influence of certification in the binational relationship is reflected in a kind of shuttle diplomacy developing this month - Mr. Labastida to Washington with an entourage of high-level officials, Mr. Clinton to Merida, US members of Congress to Mexico City to meet with Mr. Zedillo.

Too negative a tone?

This week Vice President Al Gore and White House antidrug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey praised Mexico's drug war - especially the country's commitment to spending a half-billion dollars over three years on new narcotics tracking technology, including high-powered planes, helicopters, and ships.

But members of the US Congress want to hear directly from Zedillo about Mexico's commitment. A group of Republican senators and congressmen say they will visit Mexico City before March 1 to determine just how "genuine" Mexico's antidrug effort is.

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Some analysts fault the two presidents, Clinton and Zedillo, with allowing "negative" factors to dominate US-Mexico affairs.

"Under [George] Bush and [Carlos] Salinas there was an overall positive tone to the relationship, but that has given way to a much more negative agenda" focused on drugs and illegal immigration, says John Bailey, a specialist in US-Mexico relations at Georgetown University in Washington.

Others say the relationship is more complex now than under earlier presidents.

"The context has changed," says Jorge Chabat, an international relations specialist at Mexico City's CIDE graduate school. "NAFTA has made each country more important to the other."

Risk to bilateral relations

Mexico has taken several positive steps this year - extraditing several accused drug traffickers to the US, pushing harder against crime and corruption, and putting "scarce resources" into the drug war - according to Dr. Bailey at Georgetown. But the two governments haven't capitalized on that effort, he says. After what he calls a "good start" with Mexico at the outset of his presidency, Clinton's attention has shifted elsewhere. And Zedillo "hasn't had the dynamism or the resources" to keep a focus on Mexico's accomplishments, Bailey adds.

The flurry of diplomacy and pronouncements on antidrug progress just before the certification decision may be mere "coincidence," as Mexican officials insisted before heading off to Washington this week. But what is certain is that neither the White House nor the Mexican government wants to risk the damage to bilateral relations that anything less than full certification of Mexico would entail.

Anything less - in addition to "decertification," the US law allows for a waiver to full decertification for national security reasons - would signal the end of cooperative antidrug-trafficking measures, Mexican officials say.

Exactly what impact anything other than a full certification of Mexico would have is difficult to say.

For three years running the US has denied full certification to Colombia, where a growing percentage of cocaine and heroin reaching the US originates. But that has not stopped the US from sending increased military aid to Colombia - officially to help in the antidrug effort - while over the same years coca-leaf and heroin poppy production in Colombia has exploded.

In any case, most observers agree that the strategic importance of Mexico to the US in the globalized NAFTA era, and the instability any US condemnation of Mexico could cause, mean that anything less than certification is simply ruled out.

"It's a game where failure is not an option,"says Chabat. "Mexico is condemned to play the role of impressing US public opinion, while the American administration can only praise Mexico's efforts."

Just this past Sunday the Mexican government announced it would not extradite several Mexicans the US sought to prosecute in the Casablanca case. But at the same time Mexico has quietly dropped demands that US officials who worked on the undercover operation in Mexico be extradited to face charges in Mexico.

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