MEXICO NABS DRUG LORD ON EVE OF U.S. DECISION

Published: Friday, Feb. 28 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

Just before a U.S. decision Friday on whether to recertify Mexico as a drug-war ally, Mexican officials announced the capture of a drug lord whose cartel has been responsible for tons of cocaine entering the United States.

Oscar Malherbe de Leon, head of the Gulf Cartel, was once ranked as Mexico's second most powerful drug smuggler.A government statement, released late Thursday, came on the eve of a planned announcement of President Clinton's decisions on whether to certify the drug programs of Mexico and 31 other countries.

Some U.S. lawmakers have been urging Clinton to strip Mexico of its official status as a fully cooperative ally in curbing smuggling. Such status means Mexico can receive U.S. financial aid to fight drug trafficking.

In the statement, which did not say when Malherbe was captured, authorities said public prosecutors were preparing a number of charges against him, including drug trafficking and possession.

The government said that when federal and military police stopped Malherbe's luxury car, the drug lord offered them $2 million to avoid arrest. The government said he was carrying a .45-caliber pistol.

The arrest was another blow for the Gulf Cartel, which grew from a backwoods marijuana operation into a booming cocaine smuggling outfit under its now jailed kingpin, Juan Garcia Abrego.

According to the statement, Malherbe assumed the cartel's leadership after the 1996 arrest in Mexico of Garcia Abrego, who was taken to Houston and convicted in the fall by a U.S. court of smuggling 15 tons of cocaine into the United States. He was given 11 life sentences and fined $128 million last month.

With U.S. sentiment growing to deny Mexico status as an anti-drug ally, Mexico's navy burned a ton of cocaine Thursday in a public display of its resolve to crack down on drugs.

The navy said the 2,296 pounds of cocaine, burned on the Yucatan resort island of Cozumel, was collected during "routine" operations along Mexico's Caribbean coast.

Mexican officials say Mexico deserves full recognition of its anti-drug efforts and warn that a decision to decertify it would be counterproductive.

A year ago, Clinton pronounced Mexico fully cooperative in the anti-drug effort. But U.S. congressional pressure to decertify Mexico has grown since the arrest last week of its anti-drug czar, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, on charges of links with drug traffickers.

Of the 32 countries being evaluated by the State Department, the decision on Mexico is being watched most closely because a decision to downgrade Mexico's status could have broad political implications.

The annual "certification" process is mandated by Congress.

Mexican officials say Mexico deserves full recognition.

"It would be difficult to maintain the same level of cooperation when one has received a slap in the face," Mexican Ambassador Jesus Silva Herzog said Thursday, adding that the only winners would be the drug traffickers.

One compromise option being considered would recertify Mexico while insisting it fulfills a list of anti-narcotics objectives in order to be recertified next year, an official said.

A letter to Clinton urging decertification was signed by 24 senators by Thursday. Many House members are making similar recommendations.

The letter, initiated by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said the evidence of Mexico's inability to deal with the drug trafficking problem is "overwhelming."

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