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U.S. Said to Be Harming Drug Fight in Mexico

By STANLEY MEISLER, Times Staff Writer

Thursday, March 19, 1998

WASHINGTON--A U.S. government investigator chastised Mexico on Wednesday for accomplishing little in the war on drugs and lashed out at the Pentagon for hindering that effort by supplying Mexico with ships and helicopters that either do not work or have proved ineffective.

The comments by Benjamin F. Nelson of the General Accounting Office at a joint House-Senate hearing came as Congress prepared to debate as early as next week a move to overturn President Clinton's recent certification of Mexico as a cooperative partner in the fight against narcotics.

Nelson's testimony is likely to bolster critics of the certification decision. And the disclosures about faulty military equipment being sent to Mexico clearly angered several lawmakers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a leader of the effort to overturn Mexico's certification, said she intends to investigate the equipment issue further.

Relating what sounded like a comedy of errors, Nelson testified that the Pentagon sold two Knox-class frigates to Mexico for $7 million. When they arrived last year, Nelson said, they were found to be unsafe and therefore inoperable. The U.S. Navy estimated that it would take the Mexican navy two years and $400,000 to repair them.

Even though the Navy knew of the frigates' condition, Nelson went on, the Department of Defense launched a $1.3-million program to train 110 Mexican sailors to use the ships.

Nelson, director of international relations and trade issues for the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, testified that Pentagon officials told him "they approved the training because they were not informed by the U.S. Navy that the ships would not be operational."

The GAO official also had sharp criticism of 73 UH-1H helicopters the Defense Department sent to Mexico in 1996 and 1997 as part of a $76-million military assistance program to improve the Mexican army's counter-narcotics efforts.

Nelson said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City informed him that the helicopters were incapable of carrying out their main task: swooping down on opium poppy fields and destroying them. The helicopters are of little use in altitudes higher than 5,000 feet, he said, and most poppy fields are cultivated on land higher than that.

The helicopters have proved of limited value in ferrying soldiers at lower altitudes because of delays in the delivery of spare parts and other logistical problems, he added.

Nelson also testified that the Pentagon supplied four C-26 aircraft to Mexico for surveillance of drug cultivation and trafficking but neglected to equip the planes with all the instruments needed to perform those tasks. To equip each plane will cost the Mexican military at least $3 million.

Gerri Taylor, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said defense officials would not comment on Nelson's remarks until they had reviewed his report.

In assessing Mexico's record in stemming narcotics, Nelson noted that the country has passed laws that could lead to extradition of drug criminals and has made reforms that could root out corruption in its judicial and police systems.

But, he said, "No Mexico national has actually been surrendered to the United States on drug charges, new laws are not fully implemented, and building competent judicial and law enforcement institutions continues to be a major challenge."

He added: "No country poses a more immediate narcotics threat to the United States than Mexico."

Feinstein said that ignoring shortcomings in Mexico's anti-drug endeavors "or pretending they are outweighed by modest advances doesn't make them go away."

Clinton's certification of Mexico will stand unless Congress overturns it before the end of this month. By law, the president must decide every year whether other nations are cooperating with drug-fighting efforts. Those not certified face the loss of U.S. aid.

The anti-certification resolution Feinstein is pushing would exempt Mexico from punishment.

In other testimony at Wednesday's hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers said that top administration officials unanimously agree that Clinton should certify Mexico as a cooperative partner in fighting drugs. But, Beers said, "It is perfectly appropriate for individual agencies to have different views on specific aspects of the collective assessment."

This was an apparent reference to the Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency of the Justice Department that is believed to have argued fervently against certification. Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times for similar stories. You will not be charged to look for stories, only to retrieve one.

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