WASHINGTON -- Armed with a flood of intelligence showing that Mexico has become a huge conduit for cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana and heroin sold in the United States, federal narcotics officials are urging the Clinton administration to drop Mexico from a government list of countries making progress in combating drug trafficking.
If the administration takes such a drastic step against Mexico -- and the odds are still against it, although officials caution that a final decision has not been made -- it would almost certainly be accompanied by a waiver that would allow Mexico to continue receiving U.S. aid. But the effect would be to brand Mexico as a narco-state like Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
The dynamics of the internal discussion over Mexico and an equally sharp debate about how to deal with countries like Colombia are shaped by a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act that requires the president to announce by March 1 of each year which nations will be officially listed, or certified, as cooperating in the effort to halt drug trafficking.
Those determined to be failing to make those efforts can be decertified, or given a "vital national interest" waiver.
A growing number of federal narcotics officials express frustration over what they view as a preoccupation by U.S. policy-makers on economic stabilization and trade issues while underplaying the enormous surge of Mexican drug trafficking and its toll in crime, misery and corruption on both sides of the border.
Narcotics officials have issued a stream of reports in recent years detailing the growth of the Mexican drug cartels. At first, the reports say, the Colombian organizations hired Mexican smuggling gangs to ferry drugs across the border for delivery to Colombian distributors in the United States. But in recent years, the trade has undergone a transformation.
Increasingly, Colombians pay the Mexican rings not with cash but with drugs, usually 1 kilogram of cocaine for each kilogram brought across the border.
As a result, the Mexicans have turned into large-scale dealers, acquiring their own distribution territories in the United States. A few Mexican traffickers have grown into multibillon-dollar dealers with extensive contacts in the government and the police, law enforcement officials say.
Some federal drug enforcement experts fear Mexico may be only a few years from the point that anti-drug and -corruption efforts will have little chance of success.