San Diego Union-Tribune

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2-Mar-2001 Friday 

Bush certifies Mexico efforts in drug war 


WASHINGTON -- President Bush certified Mexico yesterday as a full-fledged partner in the war against drugs as the White House and Congress began considering steps to replace the annual global anti-narcotics report card.

Administration officials said they are open to reviewing several proposals on Capitol Hill that would seek to suspend or revamp the certification
process, which has angered Mexico and other countries.

"We are aware there is a growing sense of some in Congress that there may be now more effective approaches to strengthening international
cooperation," said Assistant Secretary of State Rand E. Beers.

Beers, the department's top anti-narcotics official, announced this year's report card yesterday. Mexico was among 20 countries "certified" this year
as fully cooperating with U.S. drug-fighting efforts under a 1986 congressional mandate.

Once again, Cambodia and Haiti were not certified, but U.S. officials did not impose sanctions because of national security concerns.

Afghanistan and Myanmar were not certified for the second straight year, officials said.

The denial of certification for Afghanistan came despite a recent report by U.N. drug control officers that the ruling Taliban militia had virtually wiped out opium production since banning poppy cultivation in July. While acknowledging the effort, the State Department said it was too early to assess its effectiveness.

Mexico is making "world-class" strides in its drug-eradication program and the new administration of President Vicente Fox has opened the door for
"unprecedented opportunities" for cooperation with the United States, according to State Department officials and reports.

The department's narcotics report praised Mexican officials for making key arrests of members of the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana. But it also
criticized Mexico for continued "institutional corruption" within law-enforcement.

Yesterday, Mexican officials denounced the U.S. certification process, as they have done repeatedly in the past.

"We despise it," said Rodrigo Labardini, counselor for anti-narcotics programs at the Mexican Embassy. "It's a process we are very much opposed to, because it is unilateral, and is counterproductive. It goes against cooperation."

Fox has criticized the U.S. certification process as arrogant and non-productive. He has proposed a multinational approach to evaluating each country's anti-drug efforts.

With the emergence of Fox, and leaders in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia who have taken dramatic steps to combat narcotics, some of the most ardent U.S. supporters of the certification process say they are prepared to look at other options.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., who co-authored the certification law in 1986, described certification as a "useful -- if imperfect -- tool."

But Biden said he would support suspension of the program because "one major rationale for it -- to prod major narcotics producing nations to take action -- seems unnecessary at this time."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she also supported the goals of certification, but believes the process must be overhauled.

"We need to bring an end to this annual, counterproductive confrontation over Mexico," said Boxer, who has sponsored a bill to overhaul
certification. Boxer said she wants to exempt countries from certification that reach "bilateral agreements" with the United States to control drugs.

"I believe that President Fox is more determined to deal with drug smuggling than any president in Mexico's history and I want to make his job
easier, not harder."

Congress is considering proposals to suspend certification for one to two years, among other options.

Beers said the Bush administration is open to suggestions, but said the president wants to maintain some type of "enforcement component" if certification is replaced.

"It is appropriate to consider how the current process might be altered to better reflect the changes in the international situation that have occurred since narcotics certification was first introduced," Beers told
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

Years ago, "certification had some value, there was immense distrust of the Mexican government, and people thought this was the only weapon we had
against drugs," said Eric Olson of the Washington Office of Latin America.

"Now, there's a huge difference in attitude. Part of that is a newfound trust and faith with these Latin American governments, certainly with Fox."