THINKING ABOUT BORDER SECURITY: A MEXICAN PERSPECTIVE Memo prepared for the Pacific Council/COMEXI Joint Task Force on Re-thinking the Mexico-U.S. Border: Seeking Cooperative Solutions to Common Problems
Introduction Ever since 9/11, border security has been the dominant topic in United States-Mexico relations. The haunting image of a terrorist operative, carrying a dirty bomb or some other tool of mass murder and sneaking into the United States from Mexico, has implicitly driven most policy debates on the border in both countries. Security concerns easily trumped both economic arguments and humanitarian pleas during the 2007 debate on comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. Likewise, border security provided a ready-made set of rationalizations to impede a full resolution to the longsimmering United States-Mexico trucking controversy. More recently, the terrorist threat has been upstaged by drug-fueled violence in Mexico. The potential of gangland executions, kidnappings, and extortions spilling into the United States is reigniting fear along the border and in policymaking circles of both countries. In one of his last statements as Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff warned that the increase in drug-related violence in Mexico might require a security “surge” on the UNITED STATES side. The implicit reference to Iraq was not lost on anyone. On border issues, fear can easily spiral into hysteria, leading in turn to myopic and counterproductive policy. The decade-old crackdown on illegal immigration is a case in point: the flow of people across the border has not stopped, but it is now more dependent on human trafficking gangs with close ties to Mexican drug traffickers . While avoiding paranoid responses, security concerns should not be treated lightly. Threats to binational security are all too real: The border is still the focal point for the war on drugs: in 2008, two thirds of all drug related executions in Mexico took place within 300 kilometers of UNITED STATES territory. Criminal gangs have become sophisticated, diversified enterprises with operations that straddle the border. However, the extent of this diversification and whether it will be a long-term strategy by traffickers are still unclear. Critical infrastructure is found all across the border region, providing a large set of potential targets for extremely disruptive terrorist attacks. Cross-border violent incidents are on the rise, increasing tensions and diverting resources in both Mexico and the United States.
The aim of this paper is to provide a general framework for thinking about border security. There are too many areas where our knowledge is incomplete, fragmentary or outright lacking. There are other areas where differences in assessments of the situation arise, or where there is an ongoing internal debate on what course of action to take. Our considerations are therefore tentative. Nevertheless, we hope they will be sufficient to provoke a deep and wide ranging debate on the complex issues of border security I. Some things we do know 1. Mexico is not a failed or failing state: this is a crucial insight: for all the recent violence, security issues in Mexico still fall within the realm of normal policy. Here are some numbers to prove the point: Mexico’s murder rate is 10.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, less than a third of the comparable rate in Brazil and Colombia. It is only slightly higher than the U.S. homicide rate in 1991, at the peak of the crack epidemic. The murder rate has fallen 26% since 1990 (from 14 to 10.4 per 100,000 inhabitants). However, the figures on homicide rates are based on reported data, so the comparisons to other countries, especially the UNITED STATES, depends on whether you believe there are differences in reporting rates. Underreporting is a potential issue here. Drug-related murders increased by 117% in 2008. Both the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and the Public Security Secretariat did report an increase in drug-related murders from 2008 to 2008; however, total murders barely budged (at around 11,000). That seems to prove that a) there is a shift in the nature of violence; and b) part of increase in drugfueled violence could be an accounting illusion (i.e., some gangland executions were previously categorized as ordinary homicides). How to count the number of drug-related murders remains a contentious issue. In 2008, 65% of all drug-related murders happened in 11 municipalities in three states (Chihuahua, Baja California, Sinaloa) Failed states see their tax revenues decline rapidly. Mexico’s non-oil tax revenues increased by 11% in 2008. Likewise for social services: for all its faults, the Mexican state is still able to provide education to over 30 million students and health services to over 80 million people.
2. Tighter controls can work (at least in the short term): heavy-handed policies are usually (and to some extent, rightfully) maligned. Nevertheless, they are seemingly having an impact on northbound illegal flows: The combined efforts of United States and Mexican counternarcotics operations have created a significant price hike in illegal drug markets: street-level cocaine prices (adjusted for purity) have almost doubled over the past 18 months from USD 98 to USD 183 per gram. There are other factors leading to the spike in price, including infighting between the traffickers and a big shift in product going to Europe. However, higher
prices translate into bigger profit margins and greater incentives to smuggle, so it is difficult to predict whether the price spike is here to stay or will be short-lived. Enhanced security measures on the United States side of the border are in all likelihood putting a damper on illegal immigration flows: the number of deported immigrants has declined consistently over the past four years (from 1.1 million in 2005 to less than 800,000 in 2008). The sharp slowdown of the construction industry might be partially responsible for that decline. Some specialists believe there is sufficient evidence that tighter border controls are having an impact; others say we are witnessing a reduction in the circularity of the movement of migrants; i.e. it is not that less undocumented workers are migrating northward, but rather that they simply stay in the United States rather than going back home temporarily. Significantly, the number of OTM’s (Other than Mexicans) detained at the border has declined rapidly in recent years, from 119,000 in 2005 to less than 75,000 in 2007. That may indicate that Mexican immigration authorities are enhancing their capacity to detain immigrants in transit towards the United States.
3. Illegal flows are increasingly a two-way street: for decades, border security was code for sealing the United States from illegal drugs or illegal immigrants. That is no longer the case: large flows of illegal merchandise are now southward bound: Arms trafficking is an increasingly lucrative business linking United States and Mexican organized crime gangs. According to Mexican military sources, there are over 15 million illegal weapons in Mexico, a stock that increases by 150-300,000 weapons per year. About 80% of all illegal weapons in Mexico were purchased in the United States. About a fourth (9,000) of all legal gun stores in the United States is located in border states. A full one-third of all gun shows are held within 200 miles of the border (particularly in Arizona). Should an unlikely United States crackdown on illegal weapons purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico be effective, the question arises as to the extent to which they can be replaced with weapons purchased elsewhere. Guns are not the only illegal products heading south. A large portion of counterfeit merchandise reaches the Mexican market after being relabeled in United States ports of entry (particularly in California). Illegal cash flows are also a big issue, as traffickers avoid detection through banks. Precursors for many synthetic drugs often make a stop in United States ports on their way to Mexico.
4. Mexican law enforcement agencies are gradually improving: although it is a painfully slow process, pointed by many setbacks, at least in some respects, the integrity and capabilities of Mexican law enforcement agencies have improved: The number of police officers, military personnel, and other agents of the State killed in the war against the drug traffickers posted a sharp rise last year (from 243 to 550). That macabre statistic is probably a sign that a) the cost of corruption is probably increasing; and, b) law enforcement is no longer a meaningless threat to drug trafficking organizations. A gradual purge of police forces (at all levels of government) is underway. Most states are setting up certified “confidence control centers”. A large proportion of local and state police officers are now subjected to regular polygraph examinations and some local police departments (e.g., Chihuahua) are experimenting with internal affairs units and community policing tactics. Technological capabilities of law enforcement agencies are improving. The “Plataforma México” project, linking all police forces through national criminal databases, is expected to be up and running next June. Likewise, the federal government has committed itself to having a national identification card and database (including biometric information) by 2012.
5. Binational cooperation has intensified: even though there is still a high level of mutual mistrust between United States and Mexican security institutions, there is a growing level of cross-border cooperation at the operational level: Mexican federal and local authorities have increased their cooperation with CBP on two issues: a) preventing cross-border attacks against Border Patrol agents; and, b) pursuing and prosecuting human trafficking gangs. The number of United States-bound extraditions has increased notably. In 2008, Mexico extradited 85 suspects to the United States, an all-time high. There has been an increase in information-sharing on specific targets between Mexican intelligence agencies and the United States intelligence community.
II. Some things we do not know 1. The full size and scope of the cross-border illegal economy: neither the United States government nor Mexican authorities still have a good handle on the size of illegal commerce. All estimates are, at best, informed guesses: According to United States government sources, annual illegal drug exports from Mexico to the United States range from USD 18 to 39 billion. The range is wide enough to deserve some skepticism. There is no consensus figure on money laundering flows. In Mexico, there has been some discussion that the data on migrant remittances might hide
a large source of laundered money. However, the Central Bank has vehemently denied that theory. Illegal profits are not showing up in income-spending surveys or retail sales data in Mexico. It is still an unresolved dilemma what is happening to the spoils of illegal activities.
2. The impact of the economic crisis on illegal cross-border flows: given the highly synchronized nature of the current economic crisis in both Mexico and the United States, there is no clear idea of how the recession will play out in illegal markets: The “pull” factors of illegal immigration have certainly weakened, particularly with the collapse in the demand for labor in some immigrantintensive industries (e.g. construction). Meanwhile, “push” factors in Mexico are strengthening with the steep rise in unemployment. It is unclear which force will prevail. Illegal drug markets are thought to have low price elasticity, but high income elasticity. The current recession could accelerate the shift in drug demand towards cheaper, synthetic substances (e.g., methamphetamines). That hypothesis, however, is still highly speculative.
3. The effect of the Mérida Initiative on binational cooperation: the Mérida Initiative (MI) was hailed as a major landmark in United States-Mexico relations. However, it is still unclear whether it will lead to a fundamental shift in binational cooperation or whether it will be in for a major redesign in the near future: The effect of the MI has been mostly symbolic so far. At the tactical and operational levels, binational cooperation takes place within previously established channels and limits. The current level of aid slated to go to Mexico under the MI umbrella is but a drop in the bucket. The USD 400 million appropriated for FY 2009 will increase the Mexican defense and security budget by 4%. Delays have plagued the process so far. The first tranche of United States aid (USD 197 million) was released in December. Most of the equipment promised under the MI framework is still to be delivered.
4. The seriousness of terrorist threats: At this point, our knowledge of the issue is extremely cursory: A large number of potential “soft targets” straddle the border, from bridges to gas networks. It is not clear what is the level of readiness, particularly in Mexico, to preempt or react to an attack. Drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have, with one exception (the Morelia grenades attack of last September), not gone down the terrorist route. It is not clear whether that tactical restraint could be abandoned in the near future.
So far, there have been no operational link-ups between organized crime gangs and terrorist groups or guerrilla organizations. However, we cannot discount a scenario that does not necessarily involve an alliance between guerrillas and narcos, but rather groups like “traffickers” or guerrilla groups involved in drug trafficking, like it happened in Colombia. That scenario is not outside the realm of possibilities.
5. The policy priorities and political constraints of the Obama administration: what will the priority given by the new United States administration to border issues? Will there be a sharp break with the policies of the Bush administration on issues such as drugs and immigration? We do not know for sure: On the campaign trail, President Obama only made some cursory and nonspecific remarks about Mexico and the border. He studiously avoided any hard-set commitments on immigration reform, for instance. The recent, pre-inauguration meeting between President Obama and President Calderón did little to clarify the issue. The event yielded some promises of forging a “strategic alliance”, but little in terms of specifics. President Calderón might face significant political constraints of his own if his party posts significant losses in the upcoming legislative elections next July. Predicting how this may have an impact on United StatesMexico binational cooperation and on border management is difficult.
III. What can we expect in the short term 1. Immigration: an unemployment-heavy recession creates the wrong political environment for immigration reform. It is highly unlikely that President Obama will spend political capital during his first term to pass a comprehensive transformation of United States immigration law. Nevertheless, there might be some changes at the margin. In particular, there might be a slowdown in workplace arrests and increased cooperation with Mexico on human trafficking issue. There might also be some progress on family reunification and on sectorlevel guest worker agreements (particularly on the AgJobs Act). The Mexican government, meanwhile, is likely to downplay the immigration issue or attempt to frame it on a wider agreement with the United States on trade and security. 2. Drugs: it is highly unlikely that there will be a major shift in current counternarcotics policy in either the United States or Mexico. In the United States, the Obama administration might attempt some relaxation on minor issues, such as medical marijuana use and ramping up funding for treatment programs. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the United States government will move away significantly from the supply interdiction priority that has characterized United States counternarcotics policy since the 1970’s. In Mexico, no major changes are expected either: the current focus on a) recovering by means of military mobilization territory under control of drug traffickers , and b)
institutional/police reform, is apt to continue in the near future, even though the current policy approach will come under increasing attack in the run-up to the midterm elections. 3. Guns: no significant changes on this front either. Second Amendment politics create heavy constraints on the Obama administration to move on gun control. Nevertheless, there is likely to be some progress on three issues: a) reinstating the ban on semi-automatic weapons, as established during the Clinton administration; b) an strengthening of the E-Trace program (particularly regarding gun show purchases); and, c) the extension of the Gunrunner operation to prevent illegal exports to Mexico. 4. Broader binational cooperation: it is difficult to know what the Obama Administration and the Congress will do, but a likely scenario is that the Mérida Initiative will probably survive during the Obama administration. Nevertheless, it is likely to suffer some significant changes in the short term. A newly emboldened Democratic Congress might try once again to impose a significant measure of conditionality on MI resources. It is unclear whether the Mexican government will accept such terms, but there is a strong likelihood that the MI could head back to the design phase. Could something resembling the broad strokes of Plan Colombia, with far more direct United States involvement, emerge from that process? Probably not, but it is a possibility that should not be discounted out of hand. In any event, if the United States pushes Calderón too hard and puts him against the ropes before Mexicans, the outcome may be the opposite of what is aimed for.
IV. Recommendations addressed to both the United States and Mexico Police and law enforcement forces 1. Set up the Mexican national police registry. It is key to have a unified database so that police purged in one location are not hired in another. Purging forces does little if the internal and external accountability mechanisms are weak or non existent. Several studies have shown that many police become corrupt once they enter into the department. There is no public information on the effectiveness of the confidence control centers or what has happened to the police who have been evaluated and deemed “not recommendable”. This recommendation is also relevant for other law enforcement forces (as in the case of the infiltration of the Deputy Attorney General’s Office in charge of the Investigation of Organized Crime, known as SIEDO). Guns 2. Re-establish the prohibition to own semi-automatic weapons in the United States, which was established under the Clinton Administration. Encourage President Obama to return to the enforcement of the ban on imported assault weapons. It would
also help to establish a waiting time for purchases of weapons at gun shows, as it is the case for armories. 3. Facilitate the access of Mexican agencies to the E-Trace data base. It can now take over a week or even longer to get information on the origin of a confiscated weapon. Drug policy 4. It is time to push the United States government harder to come up with a drug policy reform agenda on their side of the border. Reform should not be just the United States giving Mexico money. 5. Harm reduction. Push a harm reduction agenda at the United Nations level. A Latin American inter-governmental dialogue has taken place on drug policy aimed at the UN declaration that will be agreed to in March. Harm reduction is a public health philosophy that seeks to lessen the dangers that drug abuse and our drug policies cause to society. A harm reduction strategy is a comprehensive approach to drug abuse and drug policy. Harm reduction's complexity lends to its misperception as a drug legalization tool. A basic tenet of harm reduction is that there has never been, is not now, and never will be a drug-free society. A harm reduction strategy seeks pragmatic solutions to the harms that drugs and drug policies cause. It has been said that harm reduction is not what's nice, it's what works. Mexico must encourage a harm reduction approach. The European Union agrees to harm reduction language, the United States does not. Drug trafficking 6. Stop federal prosecution of the medical use of marijuana. 7. Facilitate the access of Mexican agencies to the DEA data base on the price of narcotics (STRIDE). 8. Accelerate the delivery of non-manned airplanes (Predator) to Mexican agencies. 9. Mérida Initiative. Instead of readying for a fight on conditionality, Mexico and the United States should agree on an agenda of support for long-term reforms on policing and justice. Mexico defines and implements. Both sides add additional funds.