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The Seeds Of Narco-Democracy

MEXICO CITY — Mexico has endured earthquakes, uprisings and economic panics.

Today, this nation of nearly 100 million people faces what might be the most difficult challenge in recent history: moving from one-party rule to a multiparty democracy at a time when drug cartels have gained unprecedented power and influence.

Narcotics traffickers are pouring billions of dollars in profits into corrupting the very institutions the country needs to successfully make its historic political transformation.

Narco-traffickers have always sought protection of police and politicians, but their influence until recently seemed checked by the power of the Mexican presidency.

Yet as the authority of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) unravels, even that power appears to have limitations. Just recently President Ernesto Zedillo’s new drug czar, army Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested for taking bribes from the leader of Mexico’s most powerful cartel.

“The resignation of General Gutierrez Rebollo denotes two things,” says former deputy attorney general Francisco Molina Ruiz.

“Corruption has penetrated profoundly into structures that have been apparently isolated like the Mexican Army. And the ability of the narco-traffickers in Mexico to buy influence and protection constitutes a threat to our national security.”

The United States has a vital interest in all this. Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner and they share the world’s most urban border. English is nearly as common in Mexico City as Spanish is in Los Angeles.

The United States is also the primary market for the river of drugs that flows northward through Mexico.

On Friday, the U.S. government certified Mexico’s anti-drug efforts despite calls from congress to decertify because of high-level corruption in the Mexican government.

In Mexico, meanwhile, the cartels aren’t just a threat to police and political institutions.

Mexico has become the world’s number one destination for money laundering, drug-related street crime has become commonplace in some cities, and the nation is beginning to acknowledge a growing problem with drug use by its own people.

Illegal weapons are being shipped from the United States, creating a situation in which Mexican drug traffickers outgun Mexican police officers.

Last year the Mexican government had to use Army troops to patrol neighborhoods in Mexico City because local police couldn’t handle the rising tide of murders and armed robberies.

President Clinton, who plans to visit Mexico in April, has issued approval for Mexico’s efforts over the last year, allowing continued U.S. anti-narcotics aid.

The targets of that aid: the four major Mexican cartels that help supply most of the cocaine to millions of users in the United States.

The cartels, collectively known as the Mexican Federation, are gaining strength as the world’s oldest one-party state is edging near the end of that record.

The PRI has already given up Cabinet posts to opposition parties. This summer’s elections offer the distinct possibility the PRI will lose the once rubber-stamp Congress, and even the mayoralty of Mexico City itself.

In this turbulent time, democracy tenderly takes root: More than 5,000 grassroots political groups roil Mexico City, compared to just a few hundred 15 years ago.

There was a time when this was unthinkable in Mexican life. But the last decade of this century has proven more turbulent, more violent, than any but the first two, when the nation bloodied itself in a cycle of revolution and assassination.

Many analysts liken what is happening in Mexico to what occurred in Russia after the collapse of the Communist Party. Russian organized crime groups, which had been kept under control by the Soviet KGB, rose up to become partners with legitimate businesses and sponsors of political candidates, taking control of entire sectors of the Russian economy.

That potential exists in Mexico today.

“To make an effective transition to democracy you need the effective rule of law. Drug trafficking undercuts that,” says Jorge Chabat, director of international studies at the Center for Economic Studies in Mexico City.

“They (the traffickers) buy the policemen to transport the drugs. They buy the sons of officials. They donate to political campaigns. That is the real problem. The entire process is polluted.”

If Mexico makes the leap to multiparty democracy, the traffickers’ control of anywhere from $17 billion to $30 billion a year could keep them a potent force.

“In this time of transition it is difficult to determine how it will all play out,” says Sergio Aguayo, a leading opposition organizer in Mexico City.

“But narco-democracy is a possibility.”

Mexico’s record spotty

The Clinton administration has tried to downplay current problems in favor of focusing on long-term efforts such as helping build Mexico’s legal and police institutions — rather than on short-term failures. The Mexican military is supposed to provide a stopgap.

While Mexico made some strides in the last year, the direct results are decidedly mixed. For example:

* Mexico claims to have seized 23.5 metric tons of cocaine in 1996, slightly more than 1995 but less than half of what it grabbed in 1991.

* Mexican police threw more than 11,000 people in jail for drug trafficking last year, almost 20 percent more than in 1995 but less than half the number of people arrested in 1991.

* Mexican officials have fired more than 700 Mexican federal police officers because of corruption.

“They may be a C-minus in product,” says Clinton administation drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

But he says results of the long-term strategy should be measured not in years but in decades.

“In a larger context, Mexico is going through revolutionary change. And the mistake is to report it like the metro news section. That misses the point of this transitory period. Who knows where it might lead?” he says.

“I personally see this as a 20-year process,” McCaffrey says.

How much of a factor are the drug traffickers likely to be as Mexico goes through political transformation? No one knows for sure.

“Right now the narco-traffickers are cash cows for corrupt political elites in Mexico,” says University of New Mexico Professor Emeritus Peter Lupsha. “There is a real danger that they can become partners in the system.”

Shallow trust

After years of often combative public diplomacy over narcotics trafficking, a tenuous sense of trust is taking root at the top levels of the two governments.

The United States has vowed to deal with arms trafficking from its Western states into Mexico while Mexico has acknowledged the pervasiveness of narco-corruption. The two countries are jointly investigating 60 money laundering cases.

And Mexico in 1996, for the first time, extradited four of its citizens to the United States for prosecution, two of them for drug trafficking.

“I think the two countries are moving in the right direction,” says Eduardo Ibarralo, Mexico’s deputy attorney general.

Yet that trust does not run deep.

The Clinton administration has placed its trust only in Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; his attorney general, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar; and the Mexican military.

And the arrest in February of Gutierrez has put into question Zedillo’s ability to enforce his will through the lower ranks of the government.

“I think the president truly won’t tolerate corruption and lowering the guard against the narco-trafficking,” says Molina, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

“But it’s difficult to explain how to help a president who is clearly frustrated by the inability of his subordinates.”

The distrust also runs the other way.

When a Mexico City magazine published reports on corruption during the Salinas administration, ruling party legislators blamed the U.S. government for orchestrating the articles.

And among American field agents there is little confidence in the ability of the Zedillo government to carry out its promises.

Phil Jordan, a retired veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency, believes that shoring up Mexico’s institutions could take 50 years. And his own reservoir of trust dried up long ago.

“The Mexican government will tell the U.S. government anything the U.S. wants to hear,” says Jordan. “They essentially ignore most of their agreements. I worked in combined operations and supervised cooperative operations with the Mexican authorities for over 30 years and they never lived up to any of their agreements.”

In Mexico City, the United States faces wariness over its perceived hypocrisy: the world’s largest drug user passing judgment on other nations.

And in Washington, particularly in Congress, President Zedillo faces dwindling faith in his ability to effect change.

“Eighteen months ago, I think the level of hope was about a three,” says Robert Charles, Republican chief counsel for the House National Security Subcommittee. “It jumped to a six, seven or eight last year when Zedillo pushed his government harder.”

Charles says he hadn’t seen any concrete initiatives that have grown out of Zedillo’s efforts.

Now, he says, that level of hope “has fallen back to maybe a four.”

Certification process

The rise of the cartels has coincided with the downturn in cooperation between the United States and Mexico. As a result, it is no coincidence that the Southwest border is the place where most drugs enter the United States.

Two events were pivotal in the erosion of trust and cooperation.

The first was the 1985 torture and slaying of American DEA special agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara. The second was the 1990 DEA kidnapping in Mexico of Hernando Alvarez Machain, a witness to Camarena’s murder.

In response to the Camarena killing, Congress passed a law in 1987 requiring that the president certify each year that drug-producing nations were cooperating.

In response to the Machain kidnapping, Mexico refused U.S. aid and advice.

Both countries are still saddled with the results.

There is a strong argument that the certification process does little good. It places an inordinate emphasis on short-term goals and provides a forum for somtimes-unproductive rhetoric.

“Mexicans react against it (certification),” says Miguel Ruiz-Cabanas, director of anti-narcotics programs for Mexico’s Foreign Ministry.

The name-calling and accusations from Congress last year, he says, only wore down people in the Zedillo government.

It seldom forces any real action.

The process has become a cynical mix of U.S. pressure and concerted effort by drug-producing nations to do just enough to satisfy Congress.

U.S. embassies issue demands and local governments try to fulfill them at just the right time. The greatest results often are produced in the months before the certification decision is announced.

In government circles it’s known as the “Christmas rush,” as nations try to squeeze in bigger busts to avoid a clash with Washington.

UNM professor emeritus Lupsha said one example of this “Christmas Rush” was the drug trafficking arrest last week in Mexico of Oscar Malherbe de Leon, the nominal head of the Gulf Cartel.

“Mexico is giving the U.S. a bone. They found the smallest fish they could,” Lupsha said. “If he were any smaller they would have to throw him back.”

Without certification, Mexico could have lost up to $28 million in military aid to fight drug traffickers and $18 million in nonmilitary aid for police and prosecutor training.

The annual certification process “ought not be the pivotal point,” says Charles, the House subcommittee staff counsel.

The emphasis on measurable results, too, has led to an emphasis on numbers — even if the numbers don’t mean anything.

As recently as 1996, various U.S. government agencies claimed that 70 percent of cocaine bound for the United States passed across the Southwest border. A veteran DEA agent claims he simply scratched out the figure in the late 1980s as a back-of-the-envelope calculation. It was never meant to be a scientific measurement.

“It’s as good a number as any,” says the agent. “As the Mexicans say, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s a lot.’ ”

“Every measure is based on quantity,” he says. “The truth is, it’s very misleading.”

The emphasis on numbers has led both countries to reject some profound changes in strategy. While they have focused more on arms trafficking and money laundering, they have rejected, for example, building a strategy around attacking cartel profits.

“It is a flaw in U.S. drug strategy,” says Arturo Sarukhan, a Mexican diplomat. “The focus on the big bust gets you a few headlines and may increase your budget but it really doesn’t do anything.”

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the certification process is that it focuses attention on the issue.

“The American people are very, very interested in (fighting) narcotics. That’s reflected in Congress, sometimes in a demagogic way,” says one U.S. diplomat.

“I think that’s one of the reasons President Zedillo comes to the conclusion he does. You can’t have a country enter the world community while being a major drug producer. Those two things just don’t go together.”

Problem intensifies

Much of the fight against the Mexican cartels is deadly serious. Each day, 20,000 Mexican troops are in the field cutting down poppy and marijuana fields. And hundreds of Mexican policemen have died in drug-related violence.

But the way in which the two governments posture themselves often resembles shadow-boxing, with symbolic gestures on both sides.

Depending on circumstances, for example, the drug issue will take a back seat to broader economic and political interests.

Drug flows during the early 1990s were actually higher than they are today, according to Mexican political scientist Chabat. But because the two nations were negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement at the time, little attention was paid.

“If the relationship is good on other issues, the drug issue is used to praise the Mexican government. It’s not the number one topic,” says Chabat. “The main factor in this is American public opinion.”

But hollow posturing is done at the peril of both nations.

There is still plenty of cocaine for sale in the United States, and it’s dirt cheap. Cocaine trafficking has turned American cities and the border into battlefields. Tijuana has become the Miami of the 1990s.

The cartels are dumping more of their product in Mexico as big-time traffickers pay off smaller ones in cocaine. A country that once had virtually no hard-drug addiction has sprouted at least 10,000 addicts, mainly in its northern cities.

Street crime, once rare, is now commonplace.

Most Mexicans view police as corrupt and unhelpful, according to the State Department’s 1997 human rights report. Sixty-four percent of crime victims in Mexico City do not report crimes to the police.

Police academies in Coahuila, Durango and Sonora have tried to stress professionalism. But the report says that with poor pay and virtually no benefits — not even survivor benefits for families — progress is uneven at best.

Improved law enforcement isn’t enough.

Changes in Mexico’s judicial system are viewed as essential — both in the move to democracy and in controlling organized crime spawned by drug trafficking.

Based on the Napoleonic code, courts don’t have traditions of oral testimony or argument. Everything is on paper in a suffocating bureaucratic system.

The law requires open hearings but courts generally shut the doors while a judge, alone in chambers, reviews the case file and writes out a ruling. The record isn’t available to the public.

To change all this, the Mexicans are turning to the United States for help in training police and prosecutors. Nearly half of the $18 million the United States will spend on nonmilitary aid to Mexico this year will be on judicial reforms.

Working together

For the first time since World War II, the armies of the two nations are beginning to work together. The United States trains elite Mexican troops in North Carolina and teaches helicopter night-flying in Alabama. The United States has promised 73 helicopters; 20 have had new tail numbers painted on and been delivered.

Mexico last year enacted two new laws to combat organized crime and money-laundering. For the first time, Mexican police can use confidential informants in court and conduct legal wiretaps.

Yet glitches remain.

For example, Mexico won’t allow U.S. Navy ships on patrol for smugglers in the Pacific to refuel without 30 days’ notice — and without paying cash. A senior Clinton administration official says the Mexican Defense Ministry has vowed to clear up the problem.

Overflights by U.S. reconnaissance aircraft are still under negotiation.

Also unresolved is whether DEA agents can pack guns in Mexico or if Mexican agents can wear them in the United Sates.

Official optimism in Mexico City and Washington isn’t shared in the field.

“Files turn up missing on a regular basis,” says one DEA agent. “It’s still pretty much of a one-way street on intelligence. We tell them about a plane or a truck carrying drugs. They tell us they just missed it. Same plane or truck shows up again next week with new numbers on it, maybe a paint job. It wears you down.”

Mexican officials acknowledge pervasive police corruption and have agreed to screen Mexican agents before allowing them to get U.S. intelligence.

“If the U.S. government is sharing information, they want to know that people sharing the information are people they can trust,” says Ibarrola, the Mexican deputy attorney general. “And we can understand that.”

The trick is to translate political trust at the top into life-and-death trust among police and intelligence agents in the field. And that trust will have to be built on experience.

“I think the trust lacking in American law enforcement is the influence of the corruption and fear brought about by the drug trafficking families,” says Army National Guard Col. John “J.J.” Johnson, who until recently served with the FBI.

“At the very top you have common agreement on what the problem is and how to attack it,” says John Caulfield, until recently U.S. Consul in Ciudad Juarez. “What you do not have is trust among the agents in the field.”

“It’s a consequence of our recent history that we blame the Mexicans for being corrupt,” says Caulfield, “and they blame the gringos for being arrogant.”

Facts on Mexico

— Source: CIA Fact Book

POPULATION: 93,985,848 (July 1995 estimate)

POPULATION GROWTH: 1.9%

LAND AREA: 1,923,040 square kilometers, slightly less than three times the size of Texas

RELIGION: 89% nominally Roman Catholic, 6% Protestant

LITERACY RATE: 88%

LABOR FORCE: 26.2 million (1990 estimate)

PER CAPITA GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT: $7,900 (1994 estimate)

ANNUAL UNEMPLOYMENT RATE: 9.8% (1994 estimate)

ANNUAL INFLATION RATE: 7.1% (1994 estimate)

EXPORTS: 82 percent to United States

IMPORTS: 74 percent from United States

GDP (GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT): $728.7 billion (1994 estimate)

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TWO COUNTRIES WAR ON DRUGS

MAJOR EVENTS FOR MEXICO

1989-1994 Mexico records 247 metric tons of cocaine seized, 100,000 drug-related arrests and 147,000 hectares of illicit crops destroyed.

1985: President Carlos Salinas de Gortari term begins. 1985-1988: Mexican eradication efforts are considered successful, but the flow of drugs increases steadily by the late 1980s.

1989: Salinas declares drug trafficking a threat to the nation, seizes record amount of cocaine and signs treaties of cooperation with the United States.

1991: Mexico continues arrests and seizures, but a shootout between army and police mars its record. Seven federal judicial police are killed at the Vera Cruz airstrip when Mexican army troops fire upon them to prevent them from seizing a plane carrying cocaine.

1994: Mexico arrests three key figures in the Gulf Cartel. Anti-corruption campaign continues. Assassinations continue. Cartels begin using Boeing 727 jets, which can carry 10 metric tons per trip. There are eight known flights in 1994 and 1995.

1993: Salinas fires eight Federal Judicial Police commanders, three judges and former Supreme Court justice, alleging corruption. He appoints Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, a respected human rights lawyer, to become Attorney General. Violence grows, however. The U.S. State Department notes that drug crop cultivation is spreading.

1992: There are 27,600 drug-related arrests in Mexico.

1994: Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate (PRI) Donaldo Colosio is assassinated in Tijuana. The assassins are widely believed to be linked to the drug cartels.

1995: After pledging to establish the rule of law in Mexico, Zedillo appoints a member of an opposition party to run the Attorney Generals Office.

1995: Mexico reports 9,900 drug-related arrests.

1996: Mexico arrests and deports the head of the Gulf Cartel, Juan Garcia Abrego. After an internal struggle, the Clinton administration agrees to certify Mexicos efforts.

1997: Mexican drug czar Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo arrested. 1997: Mexican officials arrest Abregos successor Oscar Malherbe de Leon.

MAJOR EVENTS FOR THE UNITED STATES

1985 DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena and his Mexican pilot are kidnapped and murdered. 1987 DEA Agent Victor Cortez tortured in August 1987.

1990 The State Department calls Salinas efforts impressive but notes there is still much to do. The two nations set up the Northern Border Response Force to intercept planes carrying cocaine. Eventually this force will have 21 helicopters spread through seven bases along the border.

1990 The DEA kidnaps a witness in the Camarena murder.

1992 The State Department calls U.S.-Mexico relationship on fighting drugs close, effective. Mexico decides to refuse U.S. aid and assume full responsibility for fighting the cartels. 1992 Bill Clinton term begins.

1994 A GAO report estimates most of the 300 tons of cocaine entering U.S. came through Mexico. The Caribbean is no longer the primary conduit.

1996 A GAO report estimates 20 to 30 percent of heroin entering U.S. comes through Mexico and 80 percent of foreign-grown marijuana comes through Mexico.

Source: Congressional Research Service, Office of Attorney General of Mexico (PGR), GAO report, State Department

The Series

MONDAY: Drug kingpin uses bullets, bribes and brains to run one of the world’s biggest drug syndicates.

TUESDAY: Ineffective police and corruption have caused a flare of drug-related violence in Mexican cities.

WEDNESDAY: The United States and Mexico have been unable to work together to stop drug smuggling.

PHOTO BY: FRANC CONTRERAS/FOR THE JOURNAL

PHOTO: Color

WAR AGAINST DRUGS: A Mexican soldier walks through a poppy field near Zihuatanejo, a coastal resort north of Acapulco. The field was slated for destruction by spraying from helicopters during an anti-drug maneuver. Drug trafficking threatens Mexico’s move toward a multiparty democracy.

In a graphic that ran Sunday with the series, “Mexico on the Edge: The Drug Cartel Threat,” the dates of the term of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari were incorrect. His term began in 1988. The error was made in editing.

Mexico On the Edge: The Drug Cartel Threat

A Journal Special Report

Mexico’s budding political growth could be endangered by drug traffickers cultivating corruption

MEXICO CITY — Mexico has endured earthquakes, uprisings and economic panics.

Today, this nation of nearly 100 million people faces what might be the most difficult challenge in recent history: moving from one-party rule to a multiparty democracy at a time when drug cartels have gained unprecedented power and influence.

Narcotics traffickers are pouring billions of dollars in profits into corrupting the very institutions the country needs to successfully make its historic political transformation.

Narco-traffickers have always sought protection of police and politicians, but their influence until recently seemed checked by the power of the Mexican presidency.

Yet as the authority of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) unravels, even that power appears to have limitations. Just recently President Ernesto Zedillo’s new drug czar, army Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested for taking bribes from the leader of Mexico’s most powerful cartel.

“The resignation of General Gutierrez Rebollo denotes two things,” says former deputy attorney general Francisco Molina Ruiz.

“Corruption has penetrated profoundly into structures that have been apparently isolated like the Mexican Army. And the ability of the narco-traffickers in Mexico to buy influence and protection constitutes a threat to our national security.”

The United States has a vital interest in all this. Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner and they share the world’s most urban border. English is nearly as common in Mexico City as Spanish is in Los Angeles.

The United States is also the primary market for the river of drugs that flows northward through Mexico.

On Friday, the U.S. government certified Mexico’s anti-drug efforts despite calls from congress to decertify because of high-level corruption in the Mexican government.

In Mexico, meanwhile, the cartels aren’t just a threat to police and political institutions.

Mexico has become the world’s number one destination for money laundering, drug-related street crime has become commonplace in some cities, and the nation is beginning to acknowledge a growing problem with drug use by its own people.

Illegal weapons are being shipped from the United States, creating a situation in which Mexican drug traffickers outgun Mexican police officers.

Last year the Mexican government had to use Army troops to patrol neighborhoods in Mexico City because local police couldn’t handle the rising tide of murders and armed robberies.

President Clinton, who plans to visit Mexico in April, has issued approval for Mexico’s efforts over the last year, allowing continued U.S. anti-narcotics aid.

The targets of that aid: the four major Mexican cartels that help supply most of the cocaine to millions of users in the United States.

The cartels, collectively known as the Mexican Federation, are gaining strength as the world’s oldest one-party state is edging near the end of that record.

The PRI has already given up Cabinet posts to opposition parties. This summer’s elections offer the distinct possibility the PRI will lose the once rubber-stamp Congress, and even the mayoralty of Mexico City itself.

In this turbulent time, democracy tenderly takes root: More than 5,000 grassroots political groups roil Mexico City, compared to just a few hundred 15 years ago.

There was a time when this was unthinkable in Mexican life. But the last decade of this century has proven more turbulent, more violent, than any but the first two, when the nation bloodied itself in a cycle of revolution and assassination.

Many analysts liken what is happening in Mexico to what occurred in Russia after the collapse of the Communist Party. Russian organized crime groups, which had been kept under control by the Soviet KGB, rose up to become partners with legitimate businesses and sponsors of political candidates, taking control of entire sectors of the Russian economy.

That potential exists in Mexico today.

“To make an effective transition to democracy you need the effective rule of law. Drug trafficking undercuts that,” says Jorge Chabat, director of international studies at the Center for Economic Studies in Mexico City.

“They (the traffickers) buy the policemen to transport the drugs. They buy the sons of officials. They donate to political campaigns. That is the real problem. The entire process is polluted.”

If Mexico makes the leap to multiparty democracy, the traffickers’ control of anywhere from $17 billion to $30 billion a year could keep them a potent force.

“In this time of transition it is difficult to determine how it will all play out,” says Sergio Aguayo, a leading opposition organizer in Mexico City.

“But narco-democracy is a possibility.”

Mexico’s record spotty

The Clinton administration has tried to downplay current problems in favor of focusing on long-term efforts such as helping build Mexico’s legal and police institutions — rather than on short-term failures. The Mexican military is supposed to provide a stopgap.

While Mexico made some strides in the last year, the direct results are decidedly mixed. For example:

* Mexico claims to have seized 23.5 metric tons of cocaine in 1996, slightly more than 1995 but less than half of what it grabbed in 1991.

* Mexican police threw more than 11,000 people in jail for drug trafficking last year, almost 20 percent more than in 1995 but less than half the number of people arrested in 1991.

* Mexican officials have fired more than 700 Mexican federal police officers because of corruption.

“They may be a C-minus in product,” says Clinton administation drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

But he says results of the long-term strategy should be measured not in years but in decades.

“In a larger context, Mexico is going through revolutionary change. And the mistake is to report it like the metro news section. That misses the point of this transitory period. Who knows where it might lead?” he says.

“I personally see this as a 20-year process,” McCaffrey says.

How much of a factor are the drug traffickers likely to be as Mexico goes through political transformation? No one knows for sure.

“Right now the narco-traffickers are cash cows for corrupt political elites in Mexico,” says University of New Mexico Professor Emeritus Peter Lupsha. “There is a real danger that they can become partners in the system.”

Shallow trust

After years of often combative public diplomacy over narcotics trafficking, a tenuous sense of trust is taking root at the top levels of the two governments.

The United States has vowed to deal with arms trafficking from its Western states into Mexico while Mexico has acknowledged the pervasiveness of narco-corruption. The two countries are jointly investigating 60 money laundering cases.

And Mexico in 1996, for the first time, extradited four of its citizens to the United States for prosecution, two of them for drug trafficking.

“I think the two countries are moving in the right direction,” says Eduardo Ibarralo, Mexico’s deputy attorney general.

Yet that trust does not run deep.

The Clinton administration has placed its trust only in Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; his attorney general, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar; and the Mexican military.

And the arrest in February of Gutierrez has put into question Zedillo’s ability to enforce his will through the lower ranks of the government.

“I think the president truly won’t tolerate corruption and lowering the guard against the narco-trafficking,” says Molina, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

“But it’s difficult to explain how to help a president who is clearly frustrated by the inability of his subordinates.”

The distrust also runs the other way.

When a Mexico City magazine published reports on corruption during the Salinas administration, ruling party legislators blamed the U.S. government for orchestrating the articles.

And among American field agents there is little confidence in the ability of the Zedillo government to carry out its promises.

Phil Jordan, a retired veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency, believes that shoring up Mexico’s institutions could take 50 years. And his own reservoir of trust dried up long ago.

“The Mexican government will tell the U.S. government anything the U.S. wants to hear,” says Jordan. “They essentially ignore most of their agreements. I worked in combined operations and supervised cooperative operations with the Mexican authorities for over 30 years and they never lived up to any of their agreements.”

In Mexico City, the United States faces wariness over its perceived hypocrisy: the world’s largest drug user passing judgment on other nations.

And in Washington, particularly in Congress, President Zedillo faces dwindling faith in his ability to effect change.

“Eighteen months ago, I think the level of hope was about a three,” says Robert Charles, Republican chief counsel for the House National Security Subcommittee. “It jumped to a six, seven or eight last year when Zedillo pushed his government harder.”

Charles says he hadn’t seen any concrete initiatives that have grown out of Zedillo’s efforts.

Now, he says, that level of hope “has fallen back to maybe a four.”

Certification process

The rise of the cartels has coincided with the downturn in cooperation between the United States and Mexico. As a result, it is no coincidence that the Southwest border is the place where most drugs enter the United States.

Two events were pivotal in the erosion of trust and cooperation.

The first was the 1985 torture and slaying of American DEA special agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara. The second was the 1990 DEA kidnapping in Mexico of Hernando Alvarez Machain, a witness to Camarena’s murder.

In response to the Camarena killing, Congress passed a law in 1987 requiring that the president certify each year that drug-producing nations were cooperating.

In response to the Machain kidnapping, Mexico refused U.S. aid and advice.

Both countries are still saddled with the results.

There is a strong argument that the certification process does little good. It places an inordinate emphasis on short-term goals and provides a forum for somtimes-unproductive rhetoric.

“Mexicans react against it (certification),” says Miguel Ruiz-Cabanas, director of anti-narcotics programs for Mexico’s Foreign Ministry.

The name-calling and accusations from Congress last year, he says, only wore down people in the Zedillo government.

It seldom forces any real action.

The process has become a cynical mix of U.S. pressure and concerted effort by drug-producing nations to do just enough to satisfy Congress.

U.S. embassies issue demands and local governments try to fulfill them at just the right time. The greatest results often are produced in the months before the certification decision is announced.

In government circles it’s known as the “Christmas rush,” as nations try to squeeze in bigger busts to avoid a clash with Washington.

UNM professor emeritus Lupsha said one example of this “Christmas Rush” was the drug trafficking arrest last week in Mexico of Oscar Malherbe de Leon, the nominal head of the Gulf Cartel.

“Mexico is giving the U.S. a bone. They found the smallest fish they could,” Lupsha said. “If he were any smaller they would have to throw him back.”

Without certification, Mexico could have lost up to $28 million in military aid to fight drug traffickers and $18 million in nonmilitary aid for police and prosecutor training.

The annual certification process “ought not be the pivotal point,” says Charles, the House subcommittee staff counsel.

The emphasis on measurable results, too, has led to an emphasis on numbers — even if the numbers don’t mean anything.

As recently as 1996, various U.S. government agencies claimed that 70 percent of cocaine bound for the United States passed across the Southwest border. A veteran DEA agent claims he simply scratched out the figure in the late 1980s as a back-of-the-envelope calculation. It was never meant to be a scientific measurement.

“It’s as good a number as any,” says the agent. “As the Mexicans say, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s a lot.’ ”

“Every measure is based on quantity,” he says. “The truth is, it’s very misleading.”

The emphasis on numbers has led both countries to reject some profound changes in strategy. While they have focused more on arms trafficking and money laundering, they have rejected, for example, building a strategy around attacking cartel profits.

“It is a flaw in U.S. drug strategy,” says Arturo Sarukhan, a Mexican diplomat. “The focus on the big bust gets you a few headlines and may increase your budget but it really doesn’t do anything.”

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the certification process is that it focuses attention on the issue.

“The American people are very, very interested in (fighting) narcotics. That’s reflected in Congress, sometimes in a demagogic way,” says one U.S. diplomat.

“I think that’s one of the reasons President Zedillo comes to the conclusion he does. You can’t have a country enter the world community while being a major drug producer. Those two things just don’t go together.”

Problem intensifies

Much of the fight against the Mexican cartels is deadly serious. Each day, 20,000 Mexican troops are in the field cutting down poppy and marijuana fields. And hundreds of Mexican policemen have died in drug-related violence.

But the way in which the two governments posture themselves often resembles shadow-boxing, with symbolic gestures on both sides.

Depending on circumstances, for example, the drug issue will take a back seat to broader economic and political interests.

Drug flows during the early 1990s were actually higher than they are today, according to Mexican political scientist Chabat. But because the two nations were negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement at the time, little attention was paid.

“If the relationship is good on other issues, the drug issue is used to praise the Mexican government. It’s not the number one topic,” says Chabat. “The main factor in this is American public opinion.”

But hollow posturing is done at the peril of both nations.

There is still plenty of cocaine for sale in the United States, and it’s dirt cheap. Cocaine trafficking has turned American cities and the border into battlefields. Tijuana has become the Miami of the 1990s.

The cartels are dumping more of their product in Mexico as big-time traffickers pay off smaller ones in cocaine. A country that once had virtually no hard-drug addiction has sprouted at least 10,000 addicts, mainly in its northern cities.

Street crime, once rare, is now commonplace.

Most Mexicans view police as corrupt and unhelpful, according to the State Department’s 1997 human rights report. Sixty-four percent of crime victims in Mexico City do not report crimes to the police.

Police academies in Coahuila, Durango and Sonora have tried to stress professionalism. But the report says that with poor pay and virtually no benefits — not even survivor benefits for families — progress is uneven at best.

Improved law enforcement isn’t enough.

Changes in Mexico’s judicial system are viewed as essential — both in the move to democracy and in controlling organized crime spawned by drug trafficking.

Based on the Napoleonic code, courts don’t have traditions of oral testimony or argument. Everything is on paper in a suffocating bureaucratic system.

The law requires open hearings but courts generally shut the doors while a judge, alone in chambers, reviews the case file and writes out a ruling. The record isn’t available to the public.

To change all this, the Mexicans are turning to the United States for help in training police and prosecutors. Nearly half of the $18 million the United States will spend on nonmilitary aid to Mexico this year will be on judicial reforms.

Working together

For the first time since World War II, the armies of the two nations are beginning to work together. The United States trains elite Mexican troops in North Carolina and teaches helicopter night-flying in Alabama. The United States has promised 73 helicopters; 20 have had new tail numbers painted on and been delivered.

Mexico last year enacted two new laws to combat organized crime and money-laundering. For the first time, Mexican police can use confidential informants in court and conduct legal wiretaps.

Yet glitches remain.

For example, Mexico won’t allow U.S. Navy ships on patrol for smugglers in the Pacific to refuel without 30 days’ notice — and without paying cash. A senior Clinton administration official says the Mexican Defense Ministry has vowed to clear up the problem.

Overflights by U.S. reconnaissance aircraft are still under negotiation.

Also unresolved is whether DEA agents can pack guns in Mexico or if Mexican agents can wear them in the United Sates.

Official optimism in Mexico City and Washington isn’t shared in the field.

“Files turn up missing on a regular basis,” says one DEA agent. “It’s still pretty much of a one-way street on intelligence. We tell them about a plane or a truck carrying drugs. They tell us they just missed it. Same plane or truck shows up again next week with new numbers on it, maybe a paint job. It wears you down.”

Mexican officials acknowledge pervasive police corruption and have agreed to screen Mexican agents before allowing them to get U.S. intelligence.

“If the U.S. government is sharing information, they want to know that people sharing the information are people they can trust,” says Ibarrola, the Mexican deputy attorney general. “And we can understand that.”

The trick is to translate political trust at the top into life-and-death trust among police and intelligence agents in the field. And that trust will have to be built on experience.

“I think the trust lacking in American law enforcement is the influence of the corruption and fear brought about by the drug trafficking families,” says Army National Guard Col. John “J.J.” Johnson, who until recently served with the FBI.

“At the very top you have common agreement on what the problem is and how to attack it,” says John Caulfield, until recently U.S. Consul in Ciudad Juarez. “What you do not have is trust among the agents in the field.”

“It’s a consequence of our recent history that we blame the Mexicans for being corrupt,” says Caulfield, “and they blame the gringos for being arrogant.”

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