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27 March 1999

Drug Decertification:
The Process Has Become an Annual Charade

By Coletta Youngers

In what has become a March ritual, Congress and the Clinton administration are once again battling over whether to "decertify" Mexico and other countries whose efforts to combat illegal drug production and trafficking are deemed insufficiently vigorous.

Decertification, however, is simply bad foreign policy and is often counterproductive. In most instances, administration officials decide that the overall interests of the United States weigh against decertification. The officials are then summoned to Capitol Hill to be denounced by members of Congress for not being "tough on drugs." As this year's raucous debate comes to a close, it is time for policymakers to take a hard look at the costs and benefits of the annual certification charade.

Legislation enacted by Congress in 1986 requires the president to decide whether to certify that illegal drug-producing and drug-transit countries are cooperating effectively with U.S. counter-narcotics efforts. Those that do not make the grade face stiff penalties --including withdrawal of U.S. aid (with the exception of counter- narcotics and humanitarian aid), American opposition to loans from multilateral development banks and possible trade sanctions. These penalties are almost always waived on "national security" grounds, and this year they were waived for Haiti, Paraguay, Cambodia and Nigeria. U.S. adversaries, on the other hand, face the full range of sanctions. Afghanistan and Burma were decertified this year. Colombia is the only ally to have been decertified and face sanctions --in 1996 and 1997.

Congress has one month --until next weekend-- to overturn the president's certification decisions.

The certification process is intended to improve foreign cooperation with U.S. counter- narcotics programs. More than a decade after its inception, however, it is clear that the process does more harm than good to U.S. efforts to stem the production of illicit drugs and to U.S. policy toward Latin America. Certification generates conflict and breeds resentment -- not collaboration. Latin American politicians of all ideological stripes resent the unilateral, score-card approach by the United States, the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has called the certification process "offensive" and has proposed that the United States be subject to the same review.

Certification advocates argue that the process prods countries to step up anti- narcotics activities and has often produced some short-term results. The Bolivian government, for example, ratchets up its eradication of coca plants (the raw material for producing cocaine) as the deadline nears. The Mexican government launched a $500 million anti-drug campaign last month -- hardly a coincidence.

There is no evidence, however, of any positive long-term effect. Despite nearly $30 billion invested by the U.S. government in international drug control efforts over the past 15 years, cocaine and heroin are purer, cheaper and more readily available than before. The drug trade remains firmly entrenched in Colombia.

Under U.S. pressure, the Colombian government did dismantle the Cali cartel, which was the main exporter of cocaine to the United States. But a plethora of smaller, locally based cartels -- much harder to infiltrate and deter -- moved in to replace it. Colombia has gone from third to first in the list of coca-producing countries and has also become a major supplier of heroin to the United States. In other words, the Colombian drug trade is as much of a threat as it was before 1996.

Decertifying Colombia had little political cost and few repercussions here in the United States. The weak political position of Colombia's president at the time, Ernesto Samper -- weakness stemming from revelations that his presidential campaign had accepted millions of dollars in contributions from Colombian drug traffickers -- made retaliation against the United States improbable. Although Colombia has traditionally been a strong U.S ally, for most U.S. officials it lacked strategic significance in areas beyond drug enforcement.

Mexico presents a very different scenario. Decertification would likely provoke a harsh response from Mexican officials and would jeopardize a range of other important U.S. policy interests, from trade to immigration. The Mexican government has consistently failed to meet the anti-drug targets set by Washington, and official corruption remains rampant. Yet Mexico is certified each year, whereas Colombia has had to endure stiff sanctions. With different standards applied to different countries, Latin American governments view the certification process as fundamentally unfair.

Washington politics also interferes in the decisions. One of the architects of the certification process, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), claims that before 1986, Congress had no mechanism to obtain information from the State Department about drug policy abroad; now, the certification process means the administration must provide annual reports evaluating progress and defend its policies on Capitol Hill. The ritual gives Congress leverage over the administration. It also guarantees members of Congress an opportunity to present a tough position in the "war on drugs" to win votes back home. In the end, drug-war politics and domestic politics are inextricably intertwined.

It is time for Congress to repeal the certification process. Although certification is viewed as a useful tool by many politicians, opposition in Washington is growing. Both national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and White House drug policy adviser Barry R. McCaffrey are on record opposing certification and favoring development of more effective multilateral mechanisms for promoting counter-narcotics cooperation. Draft legislation introduced on March 11 by Democratic Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Republican Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.) would exempt countries that have bilateral drug agreements with the United States from the certification process. While this legislation is unlikely to become law anytime soon, congressional support for reform is building.

The proposed legislation is a step in the right direction; however, U.S. policymakers should go further in recognizing our Latin American neighbors not as the enemy, but as sovereign partners. Eliminating the certification process would send an important message of support to our Latin American allies. It also would allow Washington to shift its attention from compiling short-term statistics, such as drug arrests and seizures, to promoting long-term solutions, such as building strong and effective civilian institutions -- judiciaries and police forces -- capable of confronting the illegal drug trade within a framework of respect for the rule of law and human rights. Finally, it would allow U.S. policymakers to focus on the domestic roots of the U.S. drug problem, preventing and treating drug abuse and addiction and encouraging effective community responses to the damage wrought by illegal drug use here at home.

Coletta Youngers is a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization. She is an expert on the Andean region of Latin America and U.S. international drug control policy.

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company