Mexico Slowdown on the Border

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From Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas, along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, everything on wheels moved at a lentissimo pace last week, when it moved at all. At the point known locally as the "world's busiest border crossing," between Tijuana and San Ysidro, Calif., the usual 20-minute delays on the 22- lane northbound approach plaza dragged on for as long as seven hours. The number of U.S. motorists heading south had dropped dramatically. Howls of pain rose from local businessmen as the supply of vacationing gringo customers dried up. Said Pablo Gutierrez Barron, president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce: "This is not the way to put pressure on our government. It hurts relations between the two countries and hurts our business."

That seemed to be the point Washington was trying to make. U.S. Customs agents at every one of the 15 official crossings into Mexico carried out an excruciating campaign of car-trunk by car-trunk inspection known as Operation Camarena. They were acting on direct orders from Customs Service Commissioner William von Raab, who in turn was responding to an appeal from Francis M. Mullen Jr., head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The ostensible aim of the exercise: to discover the whereabouts of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena Salazar, 37, who was abducted by four machine-gun-toting men on the streets of Guadalajara on Feb. 7.

No one seriously believed that Camarena, an eleven-year DEA veteran, would turn up in the search. Instead, the border operation was the Reagan Administration's way of trying to force the Mexican government of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado to step up its hunt for the missing agent. According to Mexican officials, the search was already being pressed hard, with 1,000 heavily armed police agents scouring the states of Sonora, Sinaloa and the Baja Californias.

Although traffic at the border crossings was returning to normal by week's end, Mexican officials were stung by the American action. In Washington, Ambassador Jorge Espinosa de los Reyes presented a formal note to the State Department expressing his government's "profound concern" at the border operation. The Customs campaign, said the note, was "incongruous with the spirit of cooperation" that exists between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration's controversial Ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin, returned to Washington for consultations.

High on the list of Gavin's topics was whether to issue a State Department travel advisory that would warn American tourists to use caution when visiting Mexico. The proposal was another measure to jog the Mexican justice system, this time in connection with a spate of violent crimes, including six possible homicides, against U.S. visitors in the past few months. Such an advisory would damage Mexico's $2 billion tourist industry, the country's second- largest foreign exchange earner after petroleum. Said State Department Spokesman Bernard Kalb: "Certainly, the safety of Americans in Mexico is a matter of current concern. We are monitoring the situation."

On Friday, De la Madrid telephoned Reagan to discuss the growing tension between the two countries. According to the Mexican President's office, the men enjoyed "a very cordial and friendly" talk that lasted several minutes. They agreed that the Attorneys General of both countries should meet soon to discuss a joint strategy to combat drug traffic across the border. De la Madrid also reportedly expressed his concern over the possibility of a U.S. travel advisory.

The U.S.-Mexico fracas could hardly have come at a worse time for the Mexican government, which already has a surfeit of problems. Burdened by a $96 billion foreign debt, the second largest in the Third World, after Brazil's, the De la Madrid government has just launched a third year of painful austerity measures. The International Monetary Fund is threatening to withhold $1.2 billion in credits from Mexico unless the country sets economic performance targets that are more to the IMF's liking. That possibility in turn could delay a complicated $48.5 billion refinancing of Mexico's debt by private, mainly U.S., banks negotiated six months ago.

Atop all that travail, Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is enduring one of its most serious political challenges in 56 years. The De la Madrid administration, which came to office in 1982 amid promises of "moral renovation," is facing a popular backlash, particularly in the north, where riots against alleged P.R.I. election fraud have sputtered for weeks. Increasingly, Mexican ire is directed at a P.R.I. legacy of corruption, graft and lawlessness that De la Madrid's new broom has been unable to sweep away. Says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego: "This is the most important and crucial political year since 1968." That was when Mexican troops shot at student demonstrators in the streets of the capital, killing more than 200.

It was against this background that the Camarena case created such a furor. The kidnaping of the Mexican-born, naturalized American agent, known as Kiki, seemed to bring out long-simmering resentments among U.S. officials about Mexican law enforcement in general. Above all, the officials were irate over the toughest of bilateral problems: the reach and political power of the crime barons who control Mexico's multibillion-dollar drug trade.

Camarena was stationed in Guadalajara (pop. 3 million), a major center of the proliferating drug industry. He was kidnaped in broad daylight, less than two blocks from the U.S. consulate. Camarena's abduction was not reported for 18 hours; bystanders may have logically thought that they were watching a drug arrest. Five days after his disappearance, the U.S. embassy in Mexico City offered a $50,000 reward for information on Camarena's whereabouts.

In private, U.S. officials complained that Mexico was not doing enough in the hunt for Camarena. From Washington, Attorney General William French Smith sent a cable of complaint to Mexican authorities, expressing "frustration and disappointment" at the pace of the investigation. Other messages flew back and forth between Ambassador Gavin and Mexican officials, including President de la Madrid. Said DEA Assistant Administrator Frank Monastero: "Some elements among the Mexican authorities have been very late in responding to leads we've developed, and if they have good reason, we don't know what it is."

U.S. suspicion in the kidnaping focused on two drug-trafficking families, headed by Miguel Felix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero. Arthur Sedillo, another Mexico-based DEA agent, told members of the President's Commission on Organized Crime in Miami last week that both families are heavily involved in opium and marijuana production and are believed to have joint operations with Colombian drug mafiosos. Earlier, DEA Deputy Administrator John C. Lawn testified that the Guadalajara traficantes had threatened eyewitnesses to the Camarena abduction. Added Lawn: "There was a reluctance on the part of law enforcement authorities in Guadalajara and Mexico City to initiate an investigation."

Sensitive Mexican pride was severely bruised by the American accusations. Mexico City's earnestness in fighting the antidrug war seems beyond question: to date, police say, some 50 Mexican drug agents have been killed in battles against the traffickers. Says a high-ranking law enforcement official: "We are efficient in law enforcement, but we are not as efficient as the Americans. If we are held up to their standards, of course we are going to fall short."

U.S. unhappiness in the Camarena affair inflamed another increasingly sore point in bilateral relations, the safety of ordinary Americans south of the border. Mexico's declining peso has made the country an even more attractive vacation spot than usual for U.S. tourists; last year 4.1 million Americans paid a visit, a 32% increase over 1983. But Mexico's economic woes have also made those tourists attractive targets for criminals. Last year there were 627 reported incidents of violent crime against American visitors. Four Americans were murdered, and four were raped. In the vicinity of Guadalajara and the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, one American was murdered, eight were robbed, and eleven were burglarized during the month of January. In the first week of February three American women were sexually molested, one in the bathroom of a luxury restaurant.

Since December, seven Americans, including the DEA agent, have disappeared. Benjamin and Patricia Mascarenas of Ely, Nev., and Dennis and Rose Carlson, of Redding, Calif., all Jehovah's Witnesses, are believed to have been abducted while distributing evangelical literature. On the night of Jan. 30, John Walker and Alberto Radelat failed to return to Walker's Guadalajara apartment after they went out for a drink.

U.S. concerns about Mexican law enforcement officials' reluctance to follow up firmly on robbery and attack cases is a major reason Washington is considering issuing a travel warning. "It's not something we do lightly," says a U.S. official. "On the other hand, we have a responsibility to warn our nationals of danger."

As the imbroglio grew, resentment in Mexico City increasingly focused on Ambassador Gavin (see box). The direct-speaking Gavin has upset his hosts by suggesting, among other things, that they take too casual a view of conflict in Central America, and by lunching with a prominent member of Mexico's conservative opposition, the National Action Party (P.A.N.). Sometimes overlooked by the government is Gavin's key role in arranging a $1.85 billion U.S. rescue package for Mexico when the country's financial crisis erupted in August 1982.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government was faced with yet another problem last week. In the northern town of Piedras Negras, a crowd of more than 100 political demonstrators bolted across the border to nearby Eagle Pass, Texas, pursued by the sounds of gunfire. Some of the refugees were members of the opposition P.A.N. They were later joined by Eleazar Cobos, the party's candidate for mayor in local elections last December. P.A.N. charges that the ruling P.R.I. used electoral fraud to guarantee victory. The P.A.N. protest led to brick and bottle throwing at local police, which in turn led to shooting. At week's end nearly all the demonstrators had returned to Mexico.

Disenchantment with De la Madrid's ruling P.R.I. is expected to show up in Mexican congressional and gubernatorial elections slated for July. The P.A.N. is expected to make a strong showing, especially in the northern border states. The unrest in the north is a sign to many observers that P.R.I.'s longstanding political grasp on Mexico may be fraying. So is the P.R.I.'s ability to ladle out benefits to its supporters.

The De la Madrid government's latest austerity efforts graphically illustrate its dilemma. After chopping public expenditures by 25% in 1983, and cutting back on public investment by 35%, Mexico City announced three weeks ago that it would slash another $1.1 billion out of the almost $84 billion budget for 1985. In the process, 80,000 jobs would be cut, and food and utility subsidies would decline by 4%. The government also announced that it would sell off 236 of more than 900 state-owned companies, ranging from textile plants to chinaware factories to hotels.

Mexico's economic fragility is a major reason for Washington's carefully considering its next actions in the ongoing border fuss. Last year Mexico , showed a heartening trade surplus, one reason why bankers have been optimistic that the country could find a way out of its debt morass. Tourism, however, accounts for 8% of Mexico's foreign exchange earnings, and any pressure by the U.S. to steer visitors away from the country would be very troublesome to the economy. If that is to be avoided, something other than a Mexican standoff at the Mexican border will be necessary.