Mexico's Drug Problems Are Also Nafta's

President Bill Clinton's first official visit to Mexico on Apr. 11-12 was planned as a triumphal tour. It was intended to trumpet the success of the three-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement that has boosted U.S.-Mexican trade 20% annually since 1994. Clinton also planned to celebrate, with President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, his winning $20 billion gamble to bail out the Mexican peso two years ago over objections in the U.S. Congress.

But a string of drug corruption scandals in Mexico has suddenly turned Clinton's dream trip into a diplomatic nightmare. He is now fighting to stop his Latin America policy from unraveling altogether. Even the future of NAFTA itself is on the line. Congressional opponents from both parties may introduce legislation to alter or undo the pact after the Administration issues a mandatory report on it in July. "People who felt we were validating a corrupt system by embracing NAFTA now feel their views have been ratified," says a senior congressional staffer.

BLIND EYE. Any hope Clinton had of using Mexico as a lever to spread NAFTA membership is in tatters as Congress loses enthusiasm for close ties with the region. "We ignore drug trafficking by Mexican government long as we can sell more McDonald's hamburgers," complains Representative Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.)

The trouble began Feb. 18 when Mexico abruptly dismissed Army General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who headed the national antidrug agency, accusing him and 36 aides of being in the pocket of traffickers. Mexican officials failed to warn the Administration of their suspicions about Gutierrez, who weeks earlier had received high-level intelligence briefings in Washington. A torrent of U.S. and Mexican press revelations worsen the picture by the day. Some reports allege that two governors from Zedillo's ruling party also have links to major traffickers. Others allege that the father of disgraced former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, as well his brother and other kin, were deeply implicated in drug corruption.

The scandals are engulfing Mexico in a big election year. Half of its congressional seats, six governorships, and the mayorship of Mexico City are up for grabs in July. Polls show Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics for seven decades, stands to lose control of Mexico City and several governorships. With an eight-point nationwide lead, however, the PRI may still hold on to its congressional majority.

HILL CAMPAIGN. Zedillo, a technocrat who is not implicated in the scandals, promised to attack corruption vigorously. But his first attempt to do so by involving the Army, long considered Mexico's least corrupt institution, backfired. Analysts believe he must now completely overhaul Mexico's legal and judicial system. Zedillo snaps that it's absurd to claim that Mexico is "a corrupt country full of criminals."

But that's now the way it looks from Capitol Hill. So Mexico is moving to shore up its badly battered reputation there. It is beefing up the congressional liaison staff at its embassy. And it will use its 41 consular offices around the U.S. to relay positive news about NAFTA to local legislators. The trouble, warns Javier Trevino, undersecretary for international cooperation at the Mexican foreign ministry, is that as Zedillo acts to clean house, the stink of corruption may get worse.

At this stage, though, Mexico doesn't have any alternative. And it must produce quick results, otherwise America's trade courtship with Mexico could end up on the rocks.