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Corrupt But Certified

By Michael S. Serrill

TIME, March 10 -- The political stakes were clear from the clout of the participants. Included at the Friday White House sitdown were President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, antidrug czar General Barry McCaffrey and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. The issue: whether to certify Mexico as cooperative in the war against drugs.

All week long the President had been bombarded with contradictory signals from his political staff, a chorus of denunciations of Mexico from Congress and warnings of retaliation from the Mexican government should Clinton make the wrong choice. Among the threats were cancellation of Clinton's scheduled April trip to Mexico and summary ejection from the country of all U.S. drug agents. Albright, McCaffrey and Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned that the anti-U.S. backlash from a decision to cast Mexico into the outer darkness would outweigh any potential political gain.

In the end, Clinton decided to certify Mexico as a willing partner in the drug fight. At a press conference, Albright admitted that "corruption is deeply rooted in Mexican counterdrug institutions," but she added that President Ernesto Zedillo "has responded to this crisis with integrity and candor."

Certification, required by Congress each year for nations that are transit or production sites for illegal drugs, would have been a matter of routine for Mexico before the stunning arrest two weeks ago of General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, chief of the country's antidrug agency, who had been praised by McCaffrey as a fount of integrity. Gutierrez, who was formally indicted for corruption last week, had allegedly been on the payroll of drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes since 1993. His detention hit the Clinton Administration like an "earthquake," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "It sent shock waves through the State Department."

An angry Clinton, convinced that the Gutierrez arrest could not be ignored, was initially inclined to yank Mexico's certification, with a waiver of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on other decertified nations such as Colombia and Burma. But diplomats warned that such a move could ruin U.S.-Mexican relations. Clinton's political choice was made doubly agonizing by a tide of anti-Mexico sentiment from Republicans and Democrats alike. In the debate leading up to the decision, not a single member of Congress vocally defended certification. To label Mexico cooperative, declared Senator Paul Coverdell, the Republican chairman of the Senate subcommittee on western hemisphere affairs, "would make whatever credibility the process had a total hypocrisy."

On the Democratic side, Mexico's most outspoken adversary was Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. In advocating decertification with a waiver of economic sanctions, Feinstein said, "I believe President Zedillo's efforts to fight drug trafficking have been totally overwhelmed by pervasive, endemic corruption throughout the Mexican government, police and military." On Thursday she presented the White House with a letter signed by 40 Senators urging decertification.

Proponents of certification countered that trade and immigration links, not to mention a 2,000-mile border, made amicable relations with Mexico imperative. Swallowing his humiliation in the Gutierrez affair, McCaffrey told the press last week, "It is our belief that the U.S. and Mexico are trapped economically, culturally, politically and because of drug crime, in the same continent, and we'd better figure out a way to work on it together for the next 10 to 20 years."

For its part, Mexico, even as its diplomats fulminated about the dire consequences of decertification, took action to give Clinton cover. On Wednesday police arrested a drug trafficker named Oscar Malherbe de Leon. On Thursday the Mexican navy burned a ton of seized cocaine on the resort island of Cozumel. More substantively, TIME has learned, President Zedillo will soon announce that he plans to scrap Mexico's existing narcotics-fighting apparatus--including the tainted National Institute to Combat Drugs, headed by General Gutierrez--and start fresh with an independent new agency modeled on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Under the plan, the DEA, the FBI and even the CIA would be invited to help train and screen a new crop of better-paid Mexican drug fighters. "We guarantee this new agency will be bulletproof when it comes to corruption," says a high-ranking Mexican official.

Some Clinton aides are impressed with the initiative. "If this is for real, and we think it is, it's a very important step," says a senior U.S. official. But those who have watched Mexico burn its promises before are skeptical. Complained DEA administrator Tom Constantine: "There is not one single civilian law-enforcement institution in Mexico with which the DEA has a really trusting relationship." U.S. agents doubt Mexico's new drug superagency will be the first.

--Reported by Tim Padgett/Mexico City and Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/Washington


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