Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, now living in exile in Ireland, stepped up the fight against drugs and earned praise from some in the Bush administration. But, although Salinas' administration seized record amounts of drugs, the power of cartels grew during his term.

Bush, Clinton Inaction Let Cartels Flourish
The U.S. has been reluctant to pressure Mexico to fight
narco-traffickers, once-secret documents show

By Richard Parker
Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. satellites watched ships from all over the world as they called on Mexican ports.
Unblinking, the satellites silently witnessed a new trend: increased drug trafficking up Mexico's western coast. As early as 1991, the Coast Guard's National Intelligence Coordination Center warned that the area around Baja California "is of increasing concern to United States law enforcement agencies."
A decade later, despite this warning, trafficking up the Pacific coast from South America has grown into a major headache for planners in the struggle against cocaine.
A new body of formerly classified intelligence reports and State Department cables -- many of them once confidential or secret -- suggests Washington failed to heed a wide variety of warnings about the growing strength of the Mexican cartels early in the decade.
Instead, just as they do today, the governments of both the United States and Mexico publicly claimed confidence in each other. Differences and doubts over drug trafficking were papered over in favor of good relations and other interests, such as trade.
The documents show the administration of President Bush in particular painted an optimistic portrait of the situation in Mexico and failed to push Mexico into greater action -- either alone or as a partner -- to curb the growing power of the cartels.
The Bush administration, the Clinton administration and Congress all slighted the drug trade in favor of free trade. The United States is still unwilling to publicly pressure the government of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to clean out corrupt officials.
"We're not going to blow up the whole bilateral relationship over it," one U.S. diplomat said.
Blind faith
The Clinton administration, like its predecessor, has pinned its hopes on what it believes are honest and devoted officials at the top of the Mexican government.
Zedillo is universally described by U.S. officials as honest and dedicated to the drug fight, as is his attorney general, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar.
Both, says U.S. drug policy director Barry McCaffrey, "are personally people of integrity."
Yet the relationship in fighting drugs in the late 1990s looks remarkably like the one that took shape early in the decade.
"It makes those of us who have larded the praise on look fairly foolish," one U.S. official acknowledges.
"President Carlos Salinas de Gortari seduced us, and, by God, we did think he was the best thing since sliced bread."
When Salinas came to power in 1988, relations with the United States had been rocked by the murder three years earlier of Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique Camarena.
The Camarena killing had poisoned the perception of Mexico in Congress. In 1987, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to disapprove President Reagan's certification that Mexico was cooperating fully in the effort against drugs.
The year Salinas came to power, the full Senate voted 63-27 to disapprove certification. The unhappiness with Mexico's performance threatened to unravel the relationship between the two countries.
Salinas took several steps: In 1989, his government arrested kingpin Miguel Angel Felix-Gallardo; sentenced the alleged killers in the Camarena case; seized record amounts of cocaine; and signed a new treaty, pledging to join with the United States in fighting traffickers.
Salinas also reorganized the Attorney General's Office and created specialized counter-narcotics units. He pledged to "fight with utmost energy" against the traffickers.
Salinas had vigorous defenders within the Bush administration.
"All these actions are encouraging steps toward fighting drugs and weeding out corruption," Secretary of State James Baker wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, trying to encourage support for Salinas.
While acknowledging that much needed to be done, Baker wrote of Salinas: "He has backed up his tough rhetoric against drugs and corruption with concrete actions."
Less than a decade later, Salinas would be living in exile in Ireland. His brother, Raul, would be in Mexico City's Eastern Prison charged with assassination and linked by prosecutors to drug traffickers.
While Carlos Salinas' administration would seize record amounts of drugs, the power of the Mexican cartels would grow during his time in power. By 1996, the State Department would say that "no country in the world poses a more immediate threat to the United States than Mexico."
Yet, the assessments of the wills and intentions of Mexico's leaders throughout the Salinas years indicated that the fight against trafficking was progressing and that the government was fully committed to it.
Reports from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department almost glowed with praise.
"President Salinas recognizes drug trafficking as a threat to Mexico's national security and well-being; he often calls the drug fight a priority of his administration," read one cable from the State Department in 1990.
The report, to be used in weighing U.S. aid to Mexico that year, said Salinas could be trusted to understand how the drug issue affected broader relations with the United States.
Yet the report also cautioned the Bush administration against pressing too hard because of historic Mexican sensitivities about sovereignty.
"No Mexican leader can risk being perceived by his people as subordinating Mexican interests and prerogatives to those of the U.S. or other countries, even in the name of fighting drugs," the report said.
The general characterization of Mexico's efforts was warm, calling the period "an unprecedented window of opportunity."
Another cable from the U.S. embassy to the State Department said efforts had succeeded beyond expectations.
The embassy warned the Bush administration not to lean on Mexico too heavily. In May of 1990, the embassy wired a confidential cable to Baker: "We do not think Salinas' resolve needs to be tested. He wants enhanced cooperation. However, it must be done in a way which does not undercut him with his domestic political constituency."
Indeed, three weeks before President Bush was to make his first state visit to Mexico and set the tone for relations between the two nations, Ambassador John Negroponte drew up his assessment of the Salinas government's commitment to fight drug trafficking. He cited the 84 metric tons of cocaine the government claimed to have seized since 1988 as proof of Salinas' intentions.

"NAFTA was seen as an opportunity, while drugs were viewed as damage control."

And the Bush administration enjoyed some brief victories, too: It insisted on a joint U.S.-Mexican effort to intercept airborne smugglers along the U.S.-Mexico border. And until traffickers caught on and changed their routes, the task force made a few big arrests and seizures.
"I am convinced that President Salinas has wrought a sea-change in the attitude of senior (Mexican) officials towards anti-narcotics cooperation with the (United States)," Negroponte wrote. There were "temporary irritants and upsets" in the relationship, he acknowledged.
But the statements of commitment from the top of the Salinas government led Negroponte to fully back Salinas.
"I have seen no behavior or attitude at the top of the Mexican government which would lead me to call into question the strength of President Salinas' commitment to combating narcotics trafficking," he wrote.
Then he made a prediction: "I see nothing on the horizon to call into question Mexico's commitment to cooperate with the U.S. in eradicating the scourge of drugs."
Reluctant to cooperate
Behind the scenes, problems unfolded, but the Bush administration rarely revealed the private resistance it was encountering in Mexico City.
When the administration decided to ship UH-1H helicopters to Mexico's attorney general, for example, Mexico's government was deeply concerned about being seen as cooperating too closely with the United States.
The "Mexican Foreign Ministry has called," said one embassy dispatch in August 1990, "extremely concerned that (the) Mexican program will be included in the announcement with other countries and thus will appear to have U.S. military assistance to the Mexican military."
Haggling over the helicopters continued, almost until the day they were delivered. And when they were, the Salinas government insisted, according to other cables, that the aircraft be delivered privately -- and with a coat of fresh, blue paint to conceal that they had been U.S. Army helicopters.
Salinas and his top adviser were cool to another Bush administration initiative: a hemispheric summit on drug trafficking.
In October 1991, Negroponte informed Salinas' chief of staff, Jose Cordoba, that Bush would invite the Mexican president to the summit.
Cordoba's "reaction was cautious, noting that normally, Mexicans like to keep their relations with (the United States) and their relations with Latin America separate," Negroponte later wrote in a secret cable.
On October 25, the U.S. ambassador saw Cordoba again.
Cordoba said the Mexican president "was reluctant" to attend the summit. Eventually, Salinas accepted. But the Mexican government wanted assurance, according to the cable, that cooperation on drugs not be linked to other issues such as free trade.
By November of 1991, the power of the drug traffickers broke into public view: Seven federal policemen died after a shootout with army troops who were helping ship drugs at the Veracruz airport.
The episode was an embarrassing revelation of narco-corruption in Mexico's military. And U.S. Customs officers, in an aircraft overhead, had watched the scene unfold.
After nearly a decade of accepting U.S. aid in the fight against narcotics, Salinas decided after Veracruz that he would no longer do so.
U.S. assistance to Mexico eventually dropped from $45 million a year to zero, as did its ability to influence the Mexican government's efforts against the cartels for the next several years.
But the embassy greeted this optimistically, hoping the bad blood over the Veracruz incident would be washed away.
"Our current assessment is that the worst damage ... has been done, and that a slow process of healing is underway," said a January 1992 cable to the State Department.
"The incident has given some impetus to 'Mexicanization' of our anti-narcotics cooperation, but this is a generally positive trend."
The NAFTA opportunity
One reason behind the relatively light pressure on Salinas was the belief that he would fight the narcotics problem in order to ensure a free-trade agreement with the United States.
"NAFTA was seen as an opportunity," says one diplomat who served at the U.S. embassy at the time, "while drugs were viewed as damage control."
The State Department was not alone in its views. Intelligence analysts concluded that the fight against drug trafficking was in good shape. A 1992 assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency predicted Salinas "will continue to place strong emphasis on the narcotics threat as a serious national security issue and seek to combat it aggressively."
The Defense Intelligence Agency gave generally high marks to operations against the cartels and campaigns aimed at cleaning out corrupt police officers. The report predicted Salinas would cooperate in the future because of his interest in the North American Free Trade Agreement under negotiation at the time.
"Salinas will continue to pursue initiatives that respond to U.S. concerns," the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded. "Perhaps the most important of all of Salinas' motivations is his perception that a better image of Mexico will figure prominently and favorably in the outcome of ongoing free trade negotiations."

  • The Mexican Federation of cartels alone is believed to earn between $17 and $30 billion each year. The United States spends less than that on all its anti-narcotics programs at home and abroad. The Clinton administration has asked Congress for about $16 billion for 1998.

  • In 1997, more than half the $15.1 billion budgeted for fighting drugs went to domestic law enforcement, much of it to increasing bed space for the Bureau of Prisons.

  • In 1997, $1.4 billion went to trying to intercept narcotics along U.S. borders.

  • In January 1992, the Bush administration was warned that NAFTA might provide a tempting target for the drug cartels.
    The treaty, rapidly becoming the prized centerpiece of U.S.-Mexico relations, would greatly expand trucking between the two countries.
    Indeed, during a trip to Mexico City, Secretary of State Baker raised a host of issues at the highest levels of the Mexican government: trade, car thefts along the border and Mexican tuna boats netting dolphins off the Pacific coast.
    He didn't mention narcotics, according to copies of his briefing materials. Those discussions were left to other officials.
    Yet a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence report in the same year warned that Colombian cartels were preparing to take advantage of NAFTA. The Rafael Munoz organization as well as other groups in the northern cities of Ciudad Juarez and Torreon "intend to maximize their legitimate business enterprises within the auspices of the new (U.S.-Mexico) free trade agreement guidelines," according to the report
    "Their plan calls for establishing maquilladoras (assembly plants), free trade warehousing areas, 'fronted' syndicated borderland purchases, and other developments for future cross-border use," the report said.
    "These operations can be used as fronts for drug trafficking activities into the U.S."
    One Bush administration aide who served at the National Security Council said the administration concluded NAFTA wouldn't increase drug trafficking and failed to consider the idea of quietly leveraging NAFTA for greater trade cooperation.
    "That idea never got off the ground," the former aide said. "Should we have used NAFTA for some kind of leverage? In retrospect, probably."
    Clinton's inheritance
    The Clinton administration inherited both NAFTA and Mexico's growing role in the drug trade. Like its predecessor, it chose to ignore problems for political reasons, tempering demands to counter drug traffickers against the backdrop of other issues.
    The Clinton administration made its own push for the trade agreement.
    When The New York Times reported on a 1991 intelligence report about traffickers fitting a Juarez battery factory with a helicopter landing pad, the administration downplayed the possibility. The embassy in Mexico City responded with a thanks to all who helped quash the Times' story.
    The episode helped sum up how NAFTA overshadowed drug trafficking in importance in Washington. There are other examples.
    In June 1993, a broad-ranging intelligence report noted an increasingly violent turf war between trafficking organizations. It also noted persistent heroin exports to the United States, despite claims of eradication by the Salinas government.
    DEA Director Robert Bonner discounted NAFTA's effect on drug trafficking, and the Central Intelligence Agency eventually testified in Congress that NAFTA would not increase trafficking.
    Until recently, the Clinton administration declined to question Mexico too directly on how U.S.-trained military officers would work with the Mexican attorney general in fighting the cartels.
    NAFTA was a threshold moment for both countries. For Mexico it meant vaulting into the ranks of industrialized nations. For the United States it meant opening up a vibrant, new market.
    And in retrospect, it might have been a missed opportunity.
    "In the ambience surrounding NAFTA, we might have been able to take some steps to prevent some of the worst outcomes we're seeing now," said Peter Smith, director of Latin American Studies at the University of California at San Diego. "My sense is that drug policy makers went on a vacation for about three years. And they were told to do so."
    But it also sums up, for Smith and others, the complexity of U.S.-Mexico relations when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking.
    Many other important issues make it difficult to pressure Mexico on drugs.
    "That is a fact," Smith said. "That's a reality of drug policy in the United States."
    In 1996, Mexico was the United States' third-largest trading partner. And the United States was Mexico's largest, with more than $94 billion in goods and services crossing the border, both ways, in just the first nine months of the year.
    U.S. officials frequently say they can't push Mexico much harder to take greater action because of Mexican concerns that its sovereignty isn't being respected.
    Smith says both nations cynically hide behind the "sovereignty" issue, the United States in particular. "The blunt reality is that there are bigger issues that simply take priority," he explained.
    It is easy, by comparison, according to Smith, to tongue-lash states like Colombia.
    When a Colombian judge sentenced traffickers Gilberto and Miguel Orejuela to three to five years in prison last month, McCaffrey condemned them as "artificial sentences" that were "wholly out of line with the seriousness of their crimes."
    He issued no such public castigation when a Mexican judge sentenced a Mexican kingpin to five years in prison.
    In a recent interview, McCaffrey acknowledged that drugs are just one issue in a broad and complex relationship.
    "In 25 years, Mexico will be the biggest Spanish-speaking country on Earth," McCaffrey said. "And we'll be the second-biggest. Politically, we have to get along."