Mexico Strains Drug Ally Status!

Mexico Strains Drug Ally Status!
Posted by FoM on February 10, 1999 at 07:28:30 PT

Mexico has produced such dismal results in combating drug trafficking in the past year that Mexican and U.S. officials say they are braced for an aggressive attempt by the U.S. Congress to decertify its southern neighbor as an ally in the drug war and add it to the "black list" of nations judged failures in the antidrug effort.
By almost any measure, Mexico made no significant progress in reducing drug trafficking and corruption in 1998, and in many categories actually showed poorer results than in the previous year, according to U.S. officials and a review of U.S. performance expectations. Even some Mexican officials agreed."What grade do you give them if they have really done nothing?" said a U.S. official involved in monitoring Mexico's anti-drug efforts. "You would have to give them a D-minus or an F."In Mexico last year, seizures of cocaine, marijuana and heroin fell significantly. Drug arrests declined, and the number of drug investigations either underway or completed dropped 14 percent from 1997. There was a drop in the number of poppy fields destroyed and clandestine drug laboratories that were found and dismantled. Confiscations of drug-carrying cars, trucks and boats also declined. Seizures of ephedrine, the key ingredient in methamphetamine -- commonly known as speed -- and of opium gum, a poppy residue used to make heroin, were just over half the number of 1997.Even worse, in the view of many U.S. officials, was Mexico's failure to show progress in several critical measures that are considered the true gauge of its resolve to combat the illegal drug trade: No major Mexican-born drug kingpin has ever been extradited to the United States; the country's new money-laundering laws have yielded only one conviction; and corruption continues to pervade the government, including within elite units specially trained or vetted by the U.S. military, CIA and law enforcement agencies.The country's two main illegal drug organizations -- the Tijuana and Juarez cartels -- still operate with few restraints. A third, the once dismantled Gulf cartel, is back in business. And even when kingpins were arrested, they often evaded justice. In one recent case, sources said, a top lieutenant in the Juarez cartel allegedly paid millions in bribes to Mexican army officials to be released from jail.Today, drug and money-laundering charges filed against three alleged methamphetamine kingpins who were captured by Mexican police -- the Amezcua brothers of Guadalajara -- were dismissed. One of the brothers is in jail on a weapons conviction; the other two are being held largely on the strength of extradition requests from the United States. On Monday, a federal judge in Mexico City ruled against the extradition of one of the brothers.One of the year's biggest law enforcement disappointments stemmed from a U.S. sting operation that Mexico said was conducted without its knowledge. After U.S. Customs charged 26 Mexican bankers with money-laundering following an undercover operation called the Casablanca sting, some Mexican officials threatened to indict and seek the extradition of the U.S. agents involved on charges that they violated Mexican sovereignty while working undercover in Mexico. On Sunday, Mexico denied a U.S. request to extradite five Mexican bankers charged in the case.Mexican officials said they interpret the record differently. They said, for example, that as a consequence of tougher law enforcement, large plane loads of cocaine no longer traverse Mexico because drug traffickers have switched to safer routes through Caribbean Sea lanes -- a shift that could explain the reduction in Mexican cocaine seizures last year.Mexican officials noted that of the 10 people on Mexico's list of most-wanted kingpins when President Ernesto Zedillo took office, six are in prison and another is dead. Only the three Arellano Felix brothers -- leaders of the Tijuana cartel -- remain at large."Of course we cannot destroy all the cartels in one day, but we are working in a clean, honest, loyal and especially in a very intensive way, risking our lives, risking everything and working very hard to fight organized crime," said Eduardo Ibarrola, a top official in the Mexican attorney general's office.How well Mexico has done in the drug war is more than an academic debate. Under U.S. law, the president must certify by March 1 of every year whether countries that are major drug producers or transshipment areas are "fully cooperating" in the drug war. If not, those nations lose a host of economic and trade benefits. The White House also has the option of decertifying a country while waiving the sanctions in the national interest.President Clinton, who plans to visit Mexico for meetings with Zedillo on Feb. 14 and 15, is expected to approve Mexico's certification. But administration officials are concerned that Mexico's weak 1998 record will prompt a concerted effort by some members of Congress to overturn that decision. Last year, the list of decertified countries included Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Burma.Members of Congress point to the administration's 12-point checklist for certifying Mexico and say that almost none of the objectives -- such as extraditing Mexican drug traffickers, curbing corruption and prosecuting more drug kingpins -- have been met.Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, has said there would be strong support this year to overturn Mexico's certification. Short of that, he said, Congress might "look very specifically at international trade issues to get leverage to ensure action" by Mexico. "Mexico has made only minimal progress," Mica said. "They have been heavy on the rhetoric and light on the action."Senior administration officials said they know they are facing a hard sell on Capitol Hill. "Opponents of certification require more than good faith efforts from Mexico -- they want results, including extraditions of Mexican nationals, more prosecutions of corrupt officials and more than paper agreements about cooperative law enforcement arrangements," said an internal White House document obtained by The Washington Post."Without strong statistical evidence, our supporters [in Congress who back certification] may very well become opponents," the document warned. "They have made it known to us that they . . . need more and better evidence of cooperative efforts. By this, they mean evidence of outcomes."That could come soon, following a well-established pattern in which Mexico delivers a sensational arrest around the time of certification. According to another White House document, the Mexican government is "reportedly working out final details before taking action against Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva for drug-related crimes."Villanueva, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, is the focus of a joint U.S.-Mexico drug investigation for his alleged role as the chief protector of the Juarez cartel on the Yucatan Peninsula, which has become one of the principal transit points for shipment of Colombian cocaine to the United States.Mexican newspapers have reported that investigators found millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts tied to Villanueva. Some U.S. officials say acting against a governor would offer a sign that Mexico is willing to tackle high-level drug corruption in the ruling party. Villanueva has repeatedly denied any connection with drug trafficking.Reflecting the same frustration felt by his U.S. counterparts, one Mexican government official said that if the certification decision were based solely on concrete results, even he would have to vote to decertify his country. But, he continued, the decision also should weigh the effort and progress Mexico is making and the potentially disastrous political and economic ramifications for both countries if the United States were to make an international pariah of its southern neighbor and second-biggest trading partner.Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug-policy director, said he "substantively disagreed" with critics of Mexico's anti-drug efforts, asserting that the country's senior leadership is committed to rooting out corruption and fighting drug trafficking. "They are struggling to deal with the problem," he said. "The struggle can be interpreted as either evidence of the sorry state of affairs or evidence that some people are trying to do the right thing."Not all the news from Mexico was bad last year. It spent about $770 million on counter-drug programs and more than 26,000 soldiers and government employees were involved in the drug battle. The number of acres of marijuana fields destroyed by the army grew by 1.8 percent. More guns and airplanes were seized than in 1997. The amount of drug money confiscated more than doubled. Methamphetamine seizures grew by 72 pounds.Juan Rebolledo, undersecretary for North America and Europe in Mexico's Foreign Ministry, said certification is a "political process" with no "clear criteria." But if Mexico were judged qualitatively, he said, critics would see that it has added reforms and strategies to increase its drug-fighting capacity dramatically. Last week, for instance, Mexico unveiled a three-year, $400 million plan to beef up drug interdiction efforts with new high technology equipment to track the flow of cocaine and heroin and improved vetting and training programs. About two-thirds of the cocaine sold in the United States comes through Mexico. A recent incident demonstrates why U.S. officials sometimes question whether significant progress is really being made. About three months ago, Gilberto Garza Garcia, 39, a top lieutenant in the Juarez cartel, was arrested on drug charges but was then allowed to escape after allegedly paying what sources said was a multimillion-dollar bribe to Mexican army officials. Garza Garcia was apprehended a few weeks ago on an island off the coast of Venezuela and has been returned to Mexican custody, sources said."We believe we have a narco-state just across the border," said a Republican congressional aide. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "always bought the Wall Street line that decertifying was bad for business. This year we won't have to worry about that crowd or the NAFTA crowd," he said. He was referring to concerns among some analysts about the impact of threatened economic sanctions on the U.S.-Mexican partnership in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
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