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Published on Sunday, March 18, 2001 in the Baltimore Sun
US Certification
Arrogance and Futility in the War on Drugs
by Rick Rockwell
MEXICO'S MOMENT of infamy quietly slipped by this month with the annual announcement of Mexico's so-called "certification" by the U.S. State Department in the war on drugs.

In the past, this event has been marked by heated debate about the hypocrisy of such a process, and even scandal when Mexico's version of our drug czar was shown to have ties to one of the leading drug cartels. Not this year. The change has little to do with the actual state of Mexico's drug-fighting efforts, and everything to do with politics.

The differences in a year are monumental. First and foremost, Vicente Fox, Mexico's new president, is being heralded as a beacon of hope for real democracy in the hemisphere. He has clearly put corruption and Mexico's drug lords in his sights. Fox was a conservative businessman before his climb into politics. As the leader of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN, by its Spanish acronym), Fox is also the first president since the Mexican Revolution without ties to the corrupt PRI, the party that ran the country for most of the 20th century.

Fox sees the certification process as an arrogant insult.

"Certification is more than an affront to Mexico and to other countries," Fox said, "It is a sham that should be denounced and canceled."

By certifying a country, what the State Department judges is whether the country is making efforts to fight drug trafficking. Mexico is one of more than 20 nations that the State Department reviews. The process of certification is important because nations that fail to meet the criteria set by the State Department are usually denied economic assistance from the United States. However, as Fox indicated, many nations resent how the United States has become the sole arbiter of how the drug war should be fought.

Changing attitude in U.S.

On this side of the border, political changes in the approach to certification are important too. By making Mexico his first international destination after taking office, President Bush put our southern neighbor in the forefront of his early foreign policy goals.

Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have indicated they are open to changes in the certification process. Perhaps more importantly, members of Congress seem predisposed to make changes. Congress requires the president to carry out this process, and now several bills have been introduced in the Senate to change the system. One bill would suspend certification for two years until the government could craft a new multinational system for providing oversight of the drug war. That bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also indicated he thinks the process needs review. In the past, Helms, a Republican, has criticized certification for not considering results. In his view, we need to stop evaluating effort and issue grades to nations for the outcome of those efforts. The senator's protests to the State Department during the Clinton administration became infamous in Mexico because they called for decertification. Such a move would have created economic sanctions and damaged U.S.-Mexican relations. Helms' views also amplified the stereotype of a Mexico seemingly reluctant to shrug off its role as the drug dealer of choice for the United States.

You might be asking: What does all this bureaucratic and political maneuvering have to do with getting drugs off our streets and out of our schools?

Clueless in Washington

These inside-the-beltway debates recall the odd sense of detachment that Steven Soderbergh so aptly captured in his Academy Award-nominated film, "Traffic." Although "Traffic" has a few Hollywood moments, for the most part it lives up to its billing as a documentary-style film that delivers a strong dose of truth along with its fictional account of the drug war. Soderbergh's depiction of the clueless nature of most of Washington's policy wonks and politicians -- as they position themselves for the perfect headline or the next television sound bite while the drug war rages -- seems right on target. Look no further than the odd political dance related to certification to see Soderbergh's fiction being played out in real life.

Anyone who believes certification is important to renew should be forced to watch Soderbergh's film with its drug-wasted suburban teens and heroic Mexican cop to understand how immediate the drug problem is for the United States and Mexico alike.

Instead of circling the problem and quantifying it, which Washington understands how to do, many people want more action. Quickly killing the divisive certification requirement and coming up with new ideas would be a first step away from these failed policies.

To get a sense of the losing efforts in the drug war, don't just turn to Soderbergh's film. Look at the record from the recent past:

  • President Fox sent a thousand federal agents to the Mexican state of Sinaloa after that state's government asked for assistance in fighting entrenched drug gangs. Since Fox's inauguration on Dec. 1, media reports list 157 people killed in murders in the state, including a dozen killed in a massacre by drug cartels in the town of El Limoncito on Valentine's Day.

  • Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the leaders of Sinaloa's cartel, bribed his way out of a maximum-security prison in Mexico in January. The escape came a day after Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that drug lords wanted in the United States could be extradited.

  • Ramon Arellano Felix, one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel, has been on the FBI's Most Wanted List since 1997, but has eluded capture in both countries. The Mexican attorney general's office believes the Arellano Felix gang has shipped arms to rebels in Colombia in exchange for cocaine. Jesus Blancornelas, the publisher of the weekly "Zeta," estimates that at least 1,000 people have been killed in the Tijuana area in the past two years in connection with the drug war. Blancornelas was almost among those statistics; he survived an assassination attempt by drug gangs in 1997.

    The results of the strategies to fight the drug war are apparent: escalating violence, the further corruption of Mexican institutions (especially that nation's military, which the Clinton administration urged into a drug-fighting role) and the erosion of human rights as law enforcement and military agents push against constitutional protections to find, catch, and prosecute the drug lords.

    Although the Mexican government officially denounced the use of torture by police and the military this month, eradicating that practice will take time. The widespread use of torture by Mexican authorities has been part of the fallout from the war on drugs.

    Perhaps, as "Traffic" preaches, our search for solutions and our search for the truth should begin at home.

    Maybe we should ask ourselves why we as a nation consume $60 billion in illegal drugs annually. The easy excuse is because our neighbors want to sell those drugs to us. The hard answer is: We are unwilling to admit to our addictions, let alone treat them.

    Rick Rockwell teaches journalism at American University in Washing ton. He is a contributor to the book "Mexico: Facing the Challenges of Human Rights and Crime." He cov ered the election of Mexico's presi dent, Vicente Fox, for the magazine In These Times.

    © 2001 by The Baltimore Sun.


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