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Latin America pours scorn on US drug producing league

Will it turn out to be United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's first big faux pas?

At the weekend, she told President Bill Clinton that Mexico was doing enough against drugs to be "certified" as a US ally. Colombia, on the other hand, was not and should be sanctioned, she argued.

The White House finally announced its annual version of the international narcotics Oscars and Wooden Spoons, appraising drug producing or trafficking countries for the past year in accordance with US law.

As always, the US itself, the world's biggest consumer of illegal narcotics and a major marijuana producer, had not been nominated and therefore received neither reward nor scolding.

The Colombian government was furious. It threatened reprisals against US interests if economic sanctions against Colombia were introduced.

Orlando Obregon, the Colombian labour minister, accused US government officials of being "so high on marijuana that they cannot see straight."Mexicans, far from expressing relief, slammed the whole process of "certification" as an unwarranted intrusion by the US in Mexican affairs.

In short, for the first time, to both winners and losers alike, the annual "certification" process was unmasked as an anachronistic fiasco.

Even straight-thinking Americans appeared to be in agreement that the US simply ended up looking stupid, and that Mrs Albright would have been better served by suggesting the abolition of the certification system. It is doubtful whether it will survive another year.

"A sham ... a bizarre display of illogic ... not credible, not transparent and not fair," said The Miami Herald, a close Latin America-watcher, in an editorial.

"The whole process reeks of high-handed, imperious injustice, unworthy of a nation - such as the United States - of strongly egalitarian traditions," said the Mexico City Times.

Why did Mexico win Mrs Albright's favour? The fact that the Mexican peso had plunged in advance of the US decision was a major factor, most analysts agreed. The peso rallied after the country got a positive grade.

Ensuing anti-US sentiment would have jeopardised Mr Clinton's planned visit to Mexico next month. In addition, the Mexican government had threatened to kick out American DEA agents if certification had been rejected.