President Clinton’s decision to certify Mexico as a cooperative partner in the fight against narcotics trafficking reflects the administration’s willingness to ignore concerns about rampant corruption among Mexican drug agents in favor of bolstering U.S. economic interests. Proponents of the president’s resolution rightly point out that decertification would require imposing trade sanctions certain to temporarily slow a profitable stream of U.S. exports to Mexico. Fortunately, however, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is challenging the president’s decision on the grounds that the long-term interest in purging drug violence and stemming the availability of inexpensive narcotics should not be subordinated to Clinton’s short-term financial priorities.
The United States first adopted a certification process in 1986 as a way to evaluate the degree of cooperation demonstrated by foreign governments collaborating with American efforts to eradicate drug smuggling. In addition to imposing trade sanctions, Congress refuses financial and technical aid to countries denied certification. Requests by decertified countries for loans from international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are met with a U.S. veto as well.
In order to secure U.S. certification, Mexican officials have worked hard over the last couple of months to conceal a surge of corruption charges. In February, President Ernesto Zedillo’s hand-picked drug czar, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested after it was discovered that he was working for the nation’s leading narcotics cartel. U.S. officials were kept in the dark for more than two weeks after the arrest.
More evidence of spiraling corruption among Mexican drug agents turned up last week. On Monday, just three days after Clinton certified Mexico, the Zedillo government acknowledged that a top money launderer was recently released without charges from a Mexico City police station. Mexico’s executive branch thus far has remained clean. But there is increasing indications that the traffickers wield considerable power to co-opt public officials, anti-drug officers, judges, federal and state police, and local populations through bribery.
Certainly, the United States needs to do more to reduce the demand for illegal drugs, but most of the cocaine and marijuana used in this country is smuggled through Mexico. Narcotics trafficking is big business south of the border and the benefits are widely dispersed. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that Mexican drug traffickers earn up to $10 billion a year and give out as much as $6 billion in bribes to Mexican drug agents and police officers.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to override the president’s decision. A growing coalition in the Senate is expected to soon follow its lead. Clinton has already threatened a veto, but the recent revelations of increasing corruption require him to reconsider. Denying Mexico certification may be the only way to force the Mexican government to step up its extradition of drug traffickers and make use of its new laws against money laundering. While Clinton is right to credit the Zedillo government for economic reforms that benefit the United States, Mexico has failed to provide evidence that it is committed to reducing the flow of narcotics across its border.