A Leap Of Faith

DON'T BE FOOLED BY ITS bureaucratic disguise. The annual "certification" process that the United States uses to judge its partners in the war on drugs has all the elements of a prime-time drama: startling plot twists, news leaks, congressional carping and-usually-a tidy, eleventh-hour resolution. As judgment day approached last week, the nasty exchanges between Washington and Mexico City sounded like an overwrought episode of "Law & Order." The acrimony began on Feb. 19, when Mexico's top anti-narcotics official was arrested on charges of working for the country's most notorious drug lord. It spread last week when two Mexican governors were accused of being on the take as well. All parties denied the charges, but by the weekend, nearly half the U.S. Senate had signed a letter urging President Clinton to "decertify" Mexico. Mexican officials lashed back at "Yanqui intervention," accusing the world's biggest drug consumer of hypocrisy.

Yet the two men in the eye of storm- Bill Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo--seemed oblivious to the tumult. On Friday afternoon, eight hours before the deadline, Clinton certified Mexico for another year as a cooperative partner in the fight against narcotics trafficking. Why the happy ending? It had a lot to do, as White House aides say, with the basic trust that exists between the two presidents--and a U.S. belief that Zedillo is honest.

But Clinton's decision also reflects the double discourse that often accompanies the certification ritual: both sides heat up the public rhetoric while privately making concessions to reach an accord. As Mexican narcotics expert Luis Astorga puts it: "Mexico fights with words, but cedes with its actions." And even in the midst of particularly damning corruption charges, the White House had no desire to poison its entire relationship with Mexico. NEWSWEEK has learned that Attorney General Janet Reno argued for decertification, and some State A symbolic bonfire? Mexican Army soldiers stand guard last week as a mountain of cocaine is burned Department officials were reluctant to give Mexico a pass. In the end, however, Clinton's advisers opted unanimously for certification, fearing that an adverse decision could lead to a run on the peso and economic collapse. Now, said a top U.S. official, "Zedillo has a year to deliver."

Clinton's decision was greeted with a sigh of relief in Mexico City--and more grumbling in Washington. "Have we received full cooperation? Not even close," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Mexico's leading critic. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that "a bipartisan majority in Congress will overturn the president's certification of Mexico." If Congress does override him, sources told NEWSWEEK, Clinton will veto the action. But Mexico's pride has already taken a beating. "This month has been a nightmare," says Mexico's deputy attorney general for international affairs, Enrique Ibarrola.

Until two weeks ago, Mexico had nothing to worry about. Despite widespread evidence of high-level corruption, Mexico showed signs of unprecedented collaboration with Washington in 1996. Drug arrests and crop-eradication had increased, and Mexico had enacted laws to crack down on money-laundering and to allow wiretapping for law enforcement. Washington had other reasons to be pleased. Mexico had paid back its peso--bailout loans ahead of schedule, and it was soon to become the United States' second largest trading partner. Clinton was even considering a stop in Mexicali, Zedillo's hometown, on his state visit next month.

Then came the arrest of Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who was accused of working for the nation's leading drug cartel even as he headed Mexico's anti-narcotics campaign. U.S. officials, who had praised the general just weeks before, tried to put the best spin on the Mexicans' debacle. "There has been no shilly-shallying about this," said a senior White House adviser. "When they found out about it, they went right after him." But on both sides of the border, investigators said Mexico's anti-drug effort had been crippled. Gutierrez's predecessor, Francisco Molina Ruiz, told NEWSWEEK: "I turned over all of the lines of investigation [to him], all of the sensitive operational information." According to U.S. sources, the secrets that were betrayed include the existence of a U.S.-Mexican intelligence unit set up to track major cartel figures and the identities of Mexican policemen now being trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., for special anti-drug squads. Thomas Constantine, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, says Gutierrez may have done more damage to anti-drug efforts than Aldrich Ames did to the CIA's espionage operations.

The man who allegedly paid off Gutierrez Rebollo was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Washington's most-wanted Mexican (box). Carrillo Fuentes, whose Juarez cartel allegedly generates tens of millions of dollars a week, has drug-trafficking charges pending against him in two American states--but only a minor weapons charge in Mexico. His apparent immunity feeds the suspicions that many frontline U.S. drag agents share about Mexico's war against narcotics. One top U.S. official describes the Mexican police force as "the most corrupt institution in the hemisphere" and denounces the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for promoting and tolerating corruption. "The PRI is a dictatorship on the verge of collapse," says this official. "As it goes, it is confronting Mexico with quite fundamental questions about the rule of law in that society." Last week The New York Times published allegations that the governors of the Mexican states of Morelos and Sonora were in cahoots with Carrillo Fuentes (a charge they denied). Senator Feinstein said Mexico's anti-narcotics efforts "have been totally overwhelmed by pervasive, endemic corruption throughout the Mexican government, police and military."

Such statements only stoked the fires of Mexican nationalism. "We don't have any faith in the government's ability to fight drug trafficking," says Mexico City plumber Jorge Espinosa. "But that doesn't mean we like the United States' coming in and dictating. You are the ones who consume all the drugs." Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria Trevino said "systematic" American news leaks not only give a skewed picture of the drug war-ignoring, for example, the fact that Mexico is the leading eradicator of drugs in the world-but also destroy trust between governments. Gurria also criticized the certification process. "It is divisive," he told NEWSWEEK. "We can either stand together and point to the future or stand apart and point at each other."

Whatever its faults, certification does seem to concentrate the mind. Less than $6 hours before the deadline, Mexican police and soldiers miraculously captured Oscar Malherbe, head of the so-called Gulf cartel, as he drove outside Mexico City. The alleged drug kingpin purportedly offered police a $2 million bribe, which they refused. Mexican officials also burned a ton of cocaine just before the certification announcement. And they seemed to be more open to key American demands, such as increasing U.S. drug-enforcement agents in Mexico and extraditing drug kingpins. That is such a delicate issue that information about two drug traffickers extradited to the United States last fall was revealed only last week. Now Mexico faces a new test: Washington wants extradition of Malherbe.

The arrest of Gutierrez has left many American officials wondering whom they can trust in Mexico, apart from Zedillo himself. Until the Mexicans rebuild their antidrug effort, the Americans may have to rely mainly on their own efforts. During the next five years, the administration plans to fence the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border; only about 140 miles is fenced now. The national drug budget for fiscal year 1997 already contains money to put 1,500 more people to work guarding the border. Giant X-ray machines are on their way to the frontier, where they will examine entire trucks with a single zap. And Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the administration's top anti-drug official, is talking about a 10-year campaign to expand and revamp America's border apparatus, including customs, immigration and the coast guard, as well as the DEA.

But as long as there is a $49 billion-a-year American market for illegal drugs, Mexicans and others will try to cash in on it. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced Mexico's recertification, she said Washington had "firm expectations" of rapid improvement in Mexico's record. The day before, Humberto Garcia Abrego, the alleged money launderer for the Gulf cartel, had walked out of a Mexican drug-enforcement office where he was supposed to be interrogated--with no questions asked. The Mexican government didn't announce his escape until several hours after certification was ensured.