San Diego Union-Tribune

16-Feb-2001 Friday

Page A-23

Delay sought in Mexico drug certification 


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Southwest border lawmakers introduced legislation yesterday seeking to impose a one-year moratorium on the United States' annual review of Mexico's drug-fighting efforts.

The White House said it is "open to reviewing" Feinstein's drug-certification proposal, along with others on the same subject. The California Democrat's proposal focuses only on Mexico and not other countries subject to certification.

The bill was introduced on the eve of President Bush's visit with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has denounced the U.S. annual report card as arrogant and nonproductive.

A yearlong moratorium, if enacted, would give Fox time to carry out his promise to root out police corruption and crack down on Mexican cartels, Feinstein said.

Feinstein said she is "very impressed with Fox's determination to move ahead" in pressing the fight against drugs.

The White House faces a March 1 deadline for sending its drug-certification recommendations to Congress.

Decertification would expose a country to U.S. sanctions.

Among the potential obstacles to changing certification is Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has pushed for maintaining certification and has been critical of Mexico's past efforts at drug-fighting. Helms' office has not commented on the

Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she hopes for a quick committee review of the measure.

Feinstein, Hutchison and Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm urged President Bush to support the moratorium. Sen. Pete Dominici, R-New Mexico, also said he backed the measure.

"Passing this legislation would get President Bush's trip to Mexico off on the right foot -- and avert a pointless confrontation with that nation's new leader," said Hutchison.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday that Bush is "open to reviewing the legislative proposals that have been made."

"Clearly, all the signals show that Bush wants to persuade Congress to do away with the certification, on the grounds that it is an irritant to
U.S.-Mexico relations," said James Lindsay, a foreign relations specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Hutchison said the entire program should be overhauled, but Feinstein isn't so sure.

Since 1986, the congressionally mandated certification process has been useful in calling attention to the drug issue, said Feinstein, adding that she would fight any proposed changes to the process.

Another measure that would suspend the entire program for two years was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

"It is arrogant to assume we are the only nation that cares about such
matters," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., sponsor of the measure. A co-sponsor is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Mexico has never flunked certification and appears virtually certain to win clearance again this year, if the process remains intact.

Mexico has never flunked certification and appears virtually certain to win clearance again this year, if the process remains intact.