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Clinton, Mexican President Sign Anti-Drug Trafficking Agreement

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times
MERIDA, Mexico

President Clinton on Monday strongly endorsed Mexico's narcotics-fighting efforts, weeks before an expected showdown with Congress over whether to give this country its annual passing grade as an ally in the drug war.

"Mexico should not be penalized for having the courage to confront its problems," the visiting Clinton said in a speech at an ornate turn-of-the-century theater here in the capital of Yucatan state, signaling that he will certify Mexico as he has in the past.

As a highlight of his 23-hour trip, Clinton also reached agreement with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo on a detailed list of steps their countries will take in fighting narcotics trafficking. It was one of eight agreements on cross-border concerns, ranging from immigration to tuberculosis, announced during the trip.

But the drug agreement seemed an incremental step rather than a major announcement that could appease congressional critics of Mexico's anti-drug performance. And the U.S. anti-drug czar, Barry R. McCaffrey, who was part of Clinton's entourage, sidestepped questions about what will happen if the two countries fail to meet the anti-drug goals.

"The goal of this isn't so much a grading sheet as trying to keep us both on this cooperative track," McCaffrey told reporters.

Mexico has emerged in recent years as the major route for traffickers sending cocaine to the United States. It also produces significant amounts of heroin and marijuana.

Clinton's visit appeared aimed, in part, at building support for Mexico before the annual U.S. review of drug-fighting allies, which the president must announce by March 1. Administration officials expect Congress to fight to overturn a presidential certification of Mexico. Such a move could lead to economic sanctions against Mexico, the United States' No. 2 trading partner.

In recent years, the drug certification process has become the most bitter subject in relations between the neighbors.

In his speech, Clinton singled out what he called Zedillo's efforts to fight corruption, which has riddled the Mexican police.

Among the other agreements signed during the trip was one to expand communication between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials on the border to reduce deaths of or injuries to migrants.

The visit underlined the warm relations between Clinton and Zedillo, who were meeting for the 10th time. The two men repeatedly hugged and smiled as they chatted.