WASHINGTON -- Searching for a new weapon in the United States' drug battles abroad, the Clinton administration has been debating proposals to impose stringent economic sanctions against Mexico's biggest traffickers.

The measures under consideration include freezing the U.S. assets of suspected drug smugglers and their associates, barring the traffickers' legitimate commercial ventures from doing business with companies in the United States, and blocking the traffickers' access to U.S. banks.

Such sanctions have been imposed in the past 18 months against the most powerful cocaine producers in Colombia and several hundred of their associates.

But the administration has been circumspect about taking similar action against Mexico, in part because of the extent to which the traffickers have enmeshed themselves in the Mexican economy.

There are, the officials said, a growing number of U.S. intelligence reports suggesting that Mexican smugglers have invested some of their booming profits in banks, ports and other enterprises that have been sold off by the state in recent years.

"If you start going after stuff they've privatized, you are going into a minefield," an official opposed to the sanctions said. "You have to weigh how much this would really hurt the traffickers against what it could do to a lot of innocents -- and what it could do to the Mexican economy as a whole."

To some officials in the White House, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, such strong measures could be more effective in Mexico than in Colombia because of the greater importance of the United States for Mexican businesses.

But Justice Department officials question whether they could defend penalties against the Mexican traffickers in court. And the Treasury Department opposes the idea more strongly, officials said, warning that the sanctions might even undermine investor confidence in the Mexican economy.

Some officials say that, as a practical obstacle, the U.S. government had much less specific information about the front companies and legitimate holdings of drug smugglers in Mexico than it did about those of Colombians.

At the same time, the officials noted that the U.S. agency responsible for imposing the sanctions, the Treasury Department, had been the most insistent voice within the government warning that they might pose a danger for legitimate business interests in Mexico.

President Clinton announced the crackdown on Colombian traffickers in October 1995. Since then, the effort has received little public attention in the United States.

In Colombia, however, each new development in the program referred to as "the Clinton list" and "the American blockade" has been front-page news.

The sanctions were levied under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which authorizes penalties in case of an "unusual and extraordinary threat to national security."

The same authority was invoked to stop Americans from doing business with the Panamanian leadership of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, and to freeze Iranian assets after Americans were taken hostage in Tehran.

The executive order issued for Colombia allows the government to freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction that belong wholly or in part to four principal figures in the Cali cocaine cartel or to nearly 300 of their relatives and associates who have been named on a list of "specially designated narcotics traffickers."

Because the traffickers are thought to have few identifiable properties in the United States, the main effect of the program comes from its secondary provisions.

Those make it illegal for U.S. citizens and companies to do business with the 126 Colombian companies -- from poultry farms to cosmetics manufacturers -- that have been explicitly linked to the cartel.

Violators risk prison terms as long as 10 years and fines of $500,000 for corporations and $250,000 for individuals.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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