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Mexico Cooperating in Anti-Drug Effort, New Drug Detection Devices to Be Used on Border, ONDCP Reports to Congress


September-October 1997

Mexico had made significant progress in cooperating with the U.S. to fight drugs, according to a report released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In the report, ONDCP Director Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey announced that the U.S. will use new high-tech equipment to detect drugs being smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. (Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, "Report to Congress: United States and Mexico Counterdrug Cooperation; Enhanced Multilateral Drug Control Cooperation; Enhanced Truck Inspections," September 1997; Carrie Hedges, "Anti-drug chief says Mexico has made strides," USA Today, September 17, 1997, p. 3A; David LaGesse, "Drug czar says Mexico making progress in anti-drug effort," Dallas Morning News, September 17, 1997; Carolyn Skorneck, "Mexico getting better at drug fight, U.S. says," Chicago Sun-Times, September 17, 1997, sec. 1, p. 47).

The evidence of Mexico's cooperation with the U.S. anti-drug effort, the report says, is increased intelligence sharing between the two countries, the eradication of illicit drug crops in Mexico, and the formation of a bilateral working group for military issues. McCaffrey said the current democratization of Mexico is a "process of profound political transition" that will help make the country a stronger anti-drug partner.

The report also notes the possible extradition of drug fugitives from Mexico to the U.S. for trial. Mexico has agreed to extradite more criminals, but under Mexican law, fugitives must serve their sentences before they can be extradited. Mexican officials have proposed to allow "temporary extraditions" in which criminals would be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial, then returned to Mexico to serve their original sentence. Upon completion of their Mexican sentence, the prisoners would be returned to the U.S. to serve the sentence that they received under U.S. law. Similar provisions exist between U.S. states.

McCaffrey said that a key part of stopping drug smuggling is to enhance inspections of trucks that pass through the 39 U.S.-Mexico border crossing points. Last year, about 11% (215,499) of the loaded commercial trucks entering the U.S., and 43% (690,589) of the empty commercial trucks entering the U.S., received a Customs search according to narcotics guidelines. However, of these vehicles searched, only .006% (56) of the labor-intensive efforts resulted in narcotics seizures, totaling about 40,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana. In order for a Customs inspection of a commercial conveyance to qualify as a "narcotics examination:" 1) cargo must be unloaded from trucks to allow inspection of all interior walls; 2) at least 20% of truck cargo must be examined; and 3) a full inspection with the use of canines, must include the cab, trailer, engine compartment, undercarriage, fuel and air tanks, tires, and fifth wheel/king plate area. Use of examination tools may negate the requirement that packages be opened and physically examined (Neil A. Lewis, "U.S. to wage a high-tech war on drugs at the Mexican border," New York Times, September 17, 1997, p. A50).

McCaffrey pledged that eight truck x-ray machines, each one costing three million dollars, will be set up at locations along the U.S.-Mexico border. The large x-ray devices can scan up to seven trucks an hour for drugs. Operating around the clock -- optimally -- these eights devices could inspect nearly one-half million trucks in a year. Another new detection device is called the "ion-sniffer," which analyzes the chemical makeup of electrically charged atoms, and can detect traces of cocaine emitted through human skin days after drug use and from hair samples a month after drug use. McCaffrey admits that smugglers who use trucks will simply move to other border crossings that do not have the x-ray device (Nancie L. Katz, "U.S. to use giant X-ray devices in drug war," Houston Chronicle, September 17, 1997, p. 17A).

Jack King of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers warned, "With this new technology, they can conduct the same search [that would now require a warrant] without establishing probable cause." This concern has led California state Senators John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) to co-sponsor a bill (SB 443) requiring a court order before use of electronic tracking devices. Senator Johnson said, "We both believe that in a free democratic society this is a dangerous notion, that government has a right to spy on you without a minimal level of oversight" (Gary Fields, "Sci-fi style tools combat real-life crime," USA Today, August 22, 1997, p. 3A; Jenifer Warren, "High tech crime tools raise civil rights debate," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 3, 1997, p. B1; Maureen O'Donnell, "Drug war weapons," Chicago Sun-Times, August 20, 1997, p. 32).

Despite the promised deployment of new technology and the generally optimistic White House survey of Mexico's anti-drug activity, some in Congress are not satisfied that Mexico has become a fully cooperative partner with the U.S. in stopping the narcotics trade. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, "The overall tone of the report is infused with a sense of optimism that Mexico has turned the corner and is finally on the road to defeating its drug trafficking problem. That view strikes me as unduly optimistic." The skeptical reaction of Feinstein and other members of Congress may be an indicator of another battle over the annual certification of Mexico next March (See "Mexico Recertified and Colombia Decertified Again as Cooperating Partners in U.S. Anti-Drug Effort ..." NewsBriefs, March-April 1997) (Stanley Meisler, "Report on Mexico's anti-drug efforts leaves Feinstein dubious," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 17, 1997, p. A3; Stanley Meisler and Faye Fiore, "Mexico drug war gets mixed review," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 14, 1997, p. A4).

The report did receive some favorable responses. Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA), who joined Senator Feinstein in fighting Mexico's certification earlier in the year, said he was "overall ... encouraged by this report." Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) said, "The administration's report indicates improvement, particularly on sharing intelligence and joint operations at the border." However, she has called for President Clinton to focus on the "demand side of the problem," particularly on the education of "young people on the consequences of drug abuse." She has also called for more attention on "manpower and state-of-the-art equipment" at the borders. The Houston Chronicle said, "Just recognizing the problem is a step in the right direction" (Editorial, "White House report on Mexico is valuable," Houston Chronicle, September 18, 1997, p. 34A).

Office of National Drug Control Policy - 750 17th St., NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20006, Tel: (202) 395-6618.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein: SH-331, Washington, DC 20510, Tel: (202) 224-3841, Fax: (202) 228-3954.

U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell: SR-200, Washington, DC 20510, Tel: (202) 224-3643, Fax: (202) 228-3783.

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson: SR-283, Washington, DC 20510, Tel: (202) 224-5922, Fax: (202) 224-0776.

California Senator John Burton - State Capitol, Room 4074, Sacramento, CA 95814, Tel: (916) 445-1412.

California Senator Ross Johnson - State Capitol, Room 5087, Sacramento, CA 95814, Tel (916) 445-4961.