Something nasty in the backyard

Drugs, crime, anarchy ... John Carlin examines America's growing unease over its corrupt, crumbling southern neighbour
Organised criminals run the government, the economy has collapsed, guerrilla bands maraud the countryside, the cities are under mob rule and people are fleeing across the border at the rate of a million a month.

Where are we? Zaire? Rwanda? Albania? No. Mexico, according to Caspar Weinberger, the former Defence Secretary, whose book, The Next War, sets out this scenario for the fate that might befall America's southern neighbour at the turn of the century.

Mr Weinberger's future shock portrayal of Mexico may be extreme, but it is not the product of a fevered mind. It rests on the fact that Mexico, whose security forces institutionally collude with drug lords, is the last remaining authoritarian state in Latin America apart from Cuba, ruled without interruption by the aptly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since 1929.

Bill Clinton, who this week will be the first US president to travel to Mexico City since Jimmy Carter, demonstrated two years ago how alert he was to the potential dangers when, flying in the face of popular opinion for once, he raised a $50bn (pounds 31bn) bailout package for a Mexican economy that was on its knees.

Another expression of his concern was his decision last week to nominate a political heavyweight, Governor William Weld of Massachusetts, as his ambassador to Mexico at a time when he is showing little urgency to fill foreign postings traditionally deemed to be more central to US foreign policy. Of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, only two have American ambassadors in place at the moment, Italy and Britain. The tour of duty of Admiral William Crowe, the ambassador to London, has expired but moves to replace him have been sluggish, in part because Britain is hardly a nation that requires close political scrutiny from Washington.

By contrast Mexico, America's third largest trading partner, is arguably Washington's biggest foreign policy concern. China is the issue du jour; Russia remains a perennial worry. But the challenges posed to the American people by those two vast nations have a distant, abstract quality compared to the immediate perils presented by an economically fragile, politically unstable country of close to 100 million people which shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States. That border is the conduit for an unstoppable flood of illegal immigrants and 70 per cent of the cocaine plus half the heroin and marijuana in the US.

Mexico does not possess nuclear weapons, but otherwise the parallel with Russia is as surprising as it is instructive. The PRI, like the Soviet Communist Party in the late 1980s, is crumbling from within. No longer powerful enough to sustain a tradition of sophisticated electoral fraud, the party may suffer the heaviest losses in its history in congressional and local elections in July.

In a country with a tradition of political assasinations, the question preying on the minds of the Mexican opposition and American observers is whether there will be a backlash from within a PRI political machine whose patriarchal style of rule has more in common with the mafia, or the Soviet Communist Party, than with the modern state its leaders claim to represent.

But the analogy with Russia is not only historical. When Mr Clinton meets Ernesto Zedillo this week he will be as aware as he was when he met Boris Yeltsin earlier this year that he is dealing with a president whose government has been thoroughly penetrated by organised crime, and whose people have long ago given up on the notion that they have recourse to the rule of law. In Mexico, as in Russia, a state of Hobbesian anarchy prevails where the strongest prosper and the weak, the disaffected majority, are content to survive.

Forbes magazine reports that Mexico boasts 15 dollar billionaires, the fifth largest number in the world behind the US, Germany, Japan and Hong Kong and well ahead of Britain, where there are six. Meanwhile, according to a United Nations report, half of Mexico's population suffers from malnutrition.

Yet drugs have become a $30bn a year industry. "The drug business in Mexico has been escalating since the early Eighties," said Jack Blum, a Washington-based Mexico expert who headed a special investigation for the US Senate in the late 1980s into drug trafficking in Latin America. "We saw a quantum leap after President Salinas came to power in 1988. Then corruption escalated to the point where the government took over, in effect, a major part of the profit accruing to the traffickers. High- level government officials viewed drugs as their business."

Among mountains of evidence to support Mr Blum's contention, three cases stand out. The army general appointed to head Mexico's war on drugs was revealed recently to be working hand in glove with a leading drug cartel; a brigadier who called for a clean-up of corruption in the security forces has languished in jail for three years, even though the courts have cleared his name; and Mexico's deputy attorney general was found by a Houston court to have used the police to shake down drug traffickers to the tune of $9m in protection money. Federal prosecutors in Houston argued that Mexico's entire law enforcement apparatus was in business with the traffickers.

To the dismay of American law enforcement agents, the response of Washington has been to sit still. Economic sanctions have been imposed on Colombia as punishment for the government's failure to rein in the cartels, but President Clinton has made a deliberate decision to spare Mexico, whose record in combating drug traffickers is far worse.

Why? Because Mr Clinton has chosen to take the approach of all his predecessors during the last 80 years: to tolerate all manner of outrages from the PRI in exchange for the promise of stability and a secure, undefended southern border. Sanctions, even a hint of criticism, would wound Mexicans' notoriously tender sensibilities and spark dangerous nationalist fires.

"It is a huge problem, a terrible dilemma," Mr Blum said. "What do you do?" You do nothing. But you do it, as Mr Clinton most certainly will in Mexico City this week, elegantly. For now, pace Mr Weinberger, all Mr Clinton has to offer on Mexico is a charm offensive.

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