MEXICO CITY -- President Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo signed joint declarations on immigration and drug trafficking yesterday during a sun-drenched ceremony designed to produce feelings of goodwill in a neighbor leery of American interference.
"Our partnership with Mexico -- for opportunity, security and prosperity -- is fundamental to the future of both our peoples," Clinton said at a joint news conference at the presidential palace. "Today we have strengthened that partnership, and I feel very, very good about what we have done -- and quite optimistic about what we will do in the days and years ahead."
But Clinton administration officials -- 10 Cabinet members made the trip -- tacitly conceded that the accords were not designed to provide concrete solutions to problems along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
Rather, their purpose -- indeed, the purpose of the 48-hour visit -- was to create a climate in which Mexican officials predisposed to help the United States are given the kind of public display of respect that will allow them to do so without being seen as patsies of Uncle Sam.
One of those officials is Zedillo, who sounded pleased with the Americans' effort.
"The visit of President Clinton and the agreements to be signed are a firm step in our relationship of friendship, respect and cooperation, which will benefit both Mexico and the United States," he said. "Our alliance will be based on mutual trust."
The declarations simply spell out what appear to be self-evident truths about immigration and narcotics, the primary issues dividing the two countries. The first: The United States has a right to control its borders and immigration policies. The second: Much more must be done in Mexico to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.
But for Mexican officials, the statements that mattered most were Clinton's agreement that the right to control immigration does not mean ignoring the human rights of illegal immigrants and that the root cause of the drug war is America's insatiable appetite for narcotics.
"Let's be frank here among friends," Clinton said. "On the American side, the problems are that we have less than 5 percent of the world's population and we consume about half the drugs. We're more than happy every year -- American citizens -- to give billions of dollars that wind up in the hands of narco traffickers."
Mexican officials welcomed such admissions, especially after the bruising congressional debate on whether sanctions should be leveled against Mexico because of its failure to zealously pursue the drug cartels, allegedly because of bribes to government officials.
Yesterday, however, the word corruption rarely passed the Americans' lips.
A 97-page joint U.S.-Mexico "drug threat assessment" issued by drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey mentioned corruption only once, and then in an oblique way. The retired Army general also praised Mexico for its efforts in the drug war -- and deflected every question about what Mexico should do to beef up enforcement.
"We want every U.S. citizen to understand that when they purchase an illegal drug, they are initiating a chain reaction whose effects are felt in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Thailand and all the other countries that are afflicted by international drug criminals," McCaffrey said.
The two sides glossed over deep divisions on such issues as Mexico's fears that last year's immigration bill will mean more deportations of Mexican nationals, U.S. frustration with Mexico's failure to extradite drug suspects and its refusal to allow U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents to carry sidearms for protection.
Both sides suggested that the talks had produced a compromise that would ensure the safety of DEA agents, but neither would explain how.
On Friday, Zedillo flatly ruled out armed DEA agents in Mexico, calling such a concession a threat to his nation's sovereignty. Yesterday, he seemed to soften slightly, but wouldn't elaborate. Apparently, both sides believe this thorny diplomatic problem -- of huge importance to U.S. narcotics agents -- can best be handled quietly.
"There are some issues, the solution of which is inversely proportional to how much you talk about them," said White House national security adviser Samuel R. Berger.
Yesterday afternoon, Clinton met with leaders of the political opposition, some of whom have accused him of meddling in Mexico's July 6 congressional and local elections by appearing with Zedillo, a member of the ruling PRI party, during campaign season.
Clinton sought to assure those leaders that he supports Mexico's evolution as a diverse political culture. When asked by a Mexican journalist whether he was trying to influence the elections, Clinton said no and quipped that he was more concerned about his own Congress.
Last night, after meeting the opposition leaders, Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a state dinner in his honor at the Palacio Nacional, where he was careful to avoid any repeat of President Jimmy Carter's famous gaffe about the gastric malady often referred to as "Montezuma's revenge."
"That came up in a briefing or two," said National Security Council official David Johnson. "That's not a mistake we wanted to repeat."
In his toast, Clinton said: "We live side-by-side as neighbors, and we work together, day in and day out as partners. But the warmth of your reception has reminded us that today we are among the closest of friends."
Clinton has taken pains to appear sensitive to the concerns of his hosts. He lauded Mexico for the richness of its culture, embrace of free trade and willingness to tackle tough problems. He praised Mexican emigrants to the United States for adding much to American life.
The only possible lapse occurred Monday in a tour of this city's famed anthropological museum. Pausing at the exhibit on the Olmecs civilization, Clinton gazed at a heavily tattooed male figure with a gaping mouth and pierced sagging earlobes. "Dennis Rodman," he said impishly.
Today, Clinton delivers a nationally televised address, visits the town of Tlaxcala and the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan. He then departs for Costa Rica and a summit of Central American leaders.
Pub Date: 5/07/97