Increasingly, members of Congress are pointing to Mexico’s southern border, not its border with the United States, as the place where the tide of illegal migration from Central America should be turned.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has repeatedly called for more U.S. involvement in helping Mexico ”secure its borders,” saying, ”The 500-mile border between Guatemala and Mexico is a sieve.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says its a big part of the long-term solution: ”It makes sense for us to be playing defense on that border instead of playing defense on our 1-yard line.”
Although Mexico’s government has developed a detailed multiagency strategy to improve security on its southern flank, it’s clear that Mexico’s goals and those of the United States are not completely aligned.
According to a senior Mexican government official, the ”guiding principles” of the southern border strategy, developed by Mexico’s secretariats of governance, defense, navy and the attorney general’s office, are ”absolute respect to human rights; migrant protection through policies to regulate migratory flow and NOT to close the border; and a frontal fight against corruption.”
While the strategy does refer to ”detention and repatriation” of illegal immigrants possibly headed to the United States, it calls for ”intense diplomatic activity” with Central American countries as part of the process necessary to accomplish that.
Mexican officials are particularly sensitive to the perception that the border strategy is being conducted in lockstep with Washington.
U.S. lawmakers refer frequently to the Mèrida Initiative, a 2008 agreement calling for the United States to provide money and training to improve internal security in Mexico and other countries in the region.
Recently, additional State Department funds for the program were authorized in the House Appropriations Committee after the Obama administration had proposed a 45 percent cut from last year’s levels. On Thursday, Cuellar announced $88 million in aid for Mexican border security ”with a focus on the southern border.”
But to some in the Mexican government, the implication is that the United States thinks the Mèrida program gives it a lever to impose its priorities on Mexico.
Two Mexican officials who declined to be identified pushed back on that premise. One said privately, ”We don’t need the United States’ money. All of the money we’ve received from the Mèrida Initiative since 2008? Every year we spend nine times that much on security.”
What has been invaluable, though, is the training. ”For us to be able to send our people to Quantico (the FBI academy in Virginia) for advanced training is something we can’t get elsewhere,” one official admitted.
Much of the Mèrida focus has been on drug cartel violence, and the Mexican government has dramatically and effectively stepped up its war on the cartels, with well-publicized campaigns in the states of Michoacán and, more recently, Tamaulipas.
”We view this simply as a shared problem,” a senior Mexican government official said. ”Of course, the United States has an interest in our security. We have an interest in the United States’ security as well, particularly when it comes to the huge market for illegal drugs there. And if the United States used the same tactics internally that they ask Latin America to use, military or street law enforcement intervention to stop crime, there would be chaos in the streets.”
Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize presents many challenges, not the least of them geographical. Of the 713 miles of border, some 213 are defined by rivers, and much of the 500 remaining miles traverse jungle, a lot of it mountainous. The region is largely undeveloped.
The Mexican strategy is said to identify 11 formal crossings and more than 370 informal crossings, many of them little more than footpaths through dense tropical forest canopies.
Also, agricultural activity in the Mexican border state of Chiapas has for decades depended greatly on migrant labor, much of it from Guatemala.
Mexican authorities ”don’t think of migration from Central America as necessarily bad,” said Eric L. Olson, associate director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center. ”A million and a half Central Americans are crossing that border every year, the vast majority of them not to go to the United States but to go to work in Mexico.”
Problems identified in the Mexican strategic plan include:
— Uncontrolled flow of migration, including illegal migration and human trafficking;
— Weapons and drugs crossing the border;
— Organized crime groups exploiting the border for their own purposes, and using extortion to gain impunity;
— Poor coordination among local, state and federal authorities;
— Law-enforcement corruption, and in some areas the absence of law enforcement.
Given those realities, the strategy’s main goals are to increase security and law enforcement, control and regulate the flow of migration, and promote social and economic development in the region.
Despite the countries’ differences, the Mexican government’s evident attention to the border issues can only be construed as good news for the United States, regional experts say.
Christopher Wilson, senior associate at the Mexico Institute, another Wilson Center program, said, ”Clearly Mexico is interested in stemming some of the migratory flow, but the bigger concerns are terrorism and drug trafficking. In that regard, there’s a fair amount of overlap between U.S. and Mexican interests.”
For example, Mexican officials recently expressed concerns that some unaccompanied minors from Central America were being recruited by the cartels, and were staying in Mexico and becoming involved in criminality.
One cartel, the Zetas, originally made up mostly of former members of the Mexican military, is now run by Central Americans.
Wilson said, ”While I don’t think they’re interested in replicating the U.S. Border Patrol and our approach to border enforcement, they are achieving a pretty high number of apprehensions and deportations.”
Mexico’s plan includes setting up three bands of control.
The first is an initial ”border control line,” viewed as the initial point of contact with people wishing to enter Mexican territory. ”We want to make migrants feel this is the safest way to enter, and there is nothing to be afraid of,” a Mexican official said.
That will involve modifying the 11 formally established crossings. The strategy specifically calls for the oversight of more than one authority at each post in order to ”inhibit corruption,” the official said.
The plan is to build a database of migrants’ biometric information at these centers to better regulate migrant flow.
Next, an ”internal control line” between 18 and 60 miles from the border will be established to interdict illegal ”people, weapons and drugs,” and to offer migration services. This line will consist of control stations at the key points of Huixtla, Playas de Catazajá, Trinitaria and Palenque, secured by both the military and federal police. While some construction work has already been done on these stations, they are being rebuilt now to accommodate the multiple-authority principle for reduction of corruption.
Finally, at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a mountainous ”choke point” that is the narrowest part of Mexico, a ”contention line” will be established by mobile enforcement patrols, endeavoring to apprehend any illegal people or contraband that have made it past the first two lines.
Included in this is a heavier reliance on technology, including air surveillance and remote sensors — but the strategy makes clear that those tools are to be used to stop criminal activities, but not against the flow of migrants.
Finally, the strategy calls for ”sustainable development” of the region, including health care delivery systems for migrants and temporary workers; enforcement of laws against child labor; increased emphasis on education in the region; and supporting both traditional and innovative commercial activity, with the goal of reducing the region’s extreme poverty.
”To me there’s a central choice that Mexico hasn’t resolved,” the Mexico Institute’s Wilson said. ”Do you try to stop the migration or do you regularize it? I don’t think Mexico’s ready to fully commit to either stop or fully regularize the migratory flow. I’m still not convinced it’s a really clear strategy.”
He called Mexico’s efforts ”The beginning of what will be a decades-long process.”
Wilson said that while the region is much more politically stable than it was 20 years ago, ”at the same time you still have a lot of rural communities beyond the reach of the Mexican federal government, managing their own affairs with indigenous or traditional government.”
”The southern border has been the forgotten border for decades,” added the Wilson Center’s Olson. ”The fact that Mexico is thinking about how it wants to build security there, how it wants to work with Guatemalans and other Central Americans, is an important step forward.
”But it’s absurd to think that we in the United States can impose our view on a border that’s not even ours,” Olson added. ”To think we can seal that border is a grand fallacy.”