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U.S.- Mexican Border Security to be a Hot Topic

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Council On Hemispheric Affairs

Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere

Memorandum to the Press 05.33
Word Count: 2500
Tuesday, 22 March 2005

U.S.-Mexican Border Security to be a Hot Topic during Tomorrow's North American Summit

• On March 23, President Bush will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Texas for a North American Summit. The trilateral talks will focus primarily on border security and trade agreements.

• The Summit comes at a critical time: increasing drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexican border during the past six months has become a major cause of concern for State Department officials.

• Mexico felt compelled to rebuke the State Department’s January 26 travel alert – cautioning Americans of the “deteriorating security situation” along the border – as an exaggeration of reality.

• Antonio Garza, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, only added fuel to the fire by expressing his concerns to Mexican officials.

• President Bush revoked funding for 10,000 new border patrol agents over the next five years, as initially authorized in the intelligence overhaul bill.

• Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with President Vicente Fox on March 10 in Mexico City in order to ease the tension over the travel alert, likewise over Garza’s remarks, and to discuss the issue of border security.

• On March 18, the Senate, going against President Bush’s request, voted to provide funds for 2,000 new border patrol agents in 2006, rather than the 210 requested by Bush.

A Romance Derailed

What was initially peddled as the Fox-Bush entente cordiale at the outset of both of their presidencies, was never more than a photo-op which only partially developed. What could have been a fruitful romance became a casualty of 9/11, when the border—which was intended to be a freeway bringing guest workers to this country—was transformed into a barrier with miles of fencing and an array of technology meant to thwart unwanted visitors.

Tomorrow, President Bush will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Waco, Texas and his Crawford ranch for the first, of what some hope to be regular, North American Summits. The trilateral talks will focus primarily on border security and trade agreements, but related issues such as drug-trafficking and immigration will also likely be discussed. While Fox has declared there will be no new major developments concerning immigration in order to dampen high expectations on the part of his fellow countrymen, the Summit is an opportunity for him to strengthen U.S.-Mexico relations which will help him become a possible claimant to White House solicitude in what has otherwise been a rocky past few months. In her first trip to Latin America since being sworn in as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice met with Fox on March 10 to finalize an agenda for these talks and to ease tensions following the State Department’s January travel alert, which cautioned U.S. travelers of the ongoing violence along the U.S.-Mexican border. As for Martin, the talks are a chance for him to work out security issues and perhaps serious trade disputes over lumber and beef, while attempting to improve his country’s relations with the U.S. which were frayed by his February 24 announcement that Canada will not participate in the U.S.’s missile defense shield. Shortly after Martin’s official announcement, Rice cancelled an April visit to Canada allegedly due to scheduling issues.

A Chance to Smooth Ruffled Feathers

Rice’s March 10 visit and the upcoming Summit gives the U.S. the opportunity to reduce friction triggered when Antonio Garza, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, sent a letter to high-ranking Mexican officials stating that the “deteriorating security situation” is an increasing cause of concern for Washington as drug-related violence along the porous border has escalated within the past six months. The sharp rise in killings and kidnappings, putting border travelers at a greater risk, is prompting the White House to reexamine its border security. Measures sought by the U.S. to tighten its borders, mainly contained in the intelligence overhaul bill passed by Congress in response to the findings of the 9/11 commission, were on the verge of collapsing after President Bush decided to withdrawal his support and slash the bill’s funding. However, in a surprise March 18 decision, the Senate demonstrated its willingness to challenge President Bush by amending his reduced funding for the bill. Going against his request, the Senate voted to provide proper funds for 2,000 new border agents, as initially stipulated in the legislation. Indeed, the amendment to the budget marks a rare instance of collaboration between both Republicans and Democrats. Last year’s intelligence measure also called for 800 new “interior investigators” rather than the 143 that the administration was prepared to fund.

The White House’s action was a departure from the widely held belief that once an illegal migrant makes it safely over the border there is little probability that he or she will be detained. The importance of this fact is that the president is of two minds on the subject: while he wants a secure border he also wants to supply his big industrial and agribusiness leaders with the cheap Mexican labor on which they depend.

The Bush Administration’s Negligence

The Bush administration’s decision not to hire 2,000 new border patrol agents for 2006 should come as no surprise to those paying close attention to Washington’s continual neglect of border issues. The timing of this decision, coming approximately five days after Garza’s stinging criticism, is indeed perplexing. However, this legislative attack on the U.S.’s “southern neighbor” and Washington’s present inability to control the flow of undocumented workers and to fight organized crime is being rebuked by Mexican officials, who are not reluctant to claim that “meddlesome” Americans should mind their own business. As the White House continues to voice its concern over border-related violence, one must ask why—in a post 9/11 environment where security trumps all other matters of national interest—is Bush so reluctant to expand the number of border patrol agents. According to just released data by the Pew Hispanic Center, the nation’s number of undocumented illegal immigrants has reached 10.3 million, with almost 500,000 arriving annually between 2000-2004 and the majority—57 percent—from Mexico.

The Crux of the Matter

On January 26, the State Department issued an alert for American nationals traveling along the violence-ridden border. Intended to caution border travelers of the growing drug-related violence, the alert was met with a fierce denunciation by Mexican officials. The matter only worsened after Garza, in a letter to Mexican officials, expressed his concern that Mexico is unable to control criminal activity and the drug trade along its side of the border. Garza further stressed that such ineffectiveness in curtailing violence could have a detrimental effect on “cross-border exchange, tourism and commerce,” which are essential to the region’s affluence. This effrontery has been met with considerable ire by Mexican officials, particularly those who remain sensitive to any perceived threat of Washington intervening in their country’s affairs. President Fox, in addition to Foreign Minister Luis Derbez and Interior Minister Santiago Creel, vehemently denounced Garza’s letter as an exaggeration of reality.

Creel is quick to point out that in recent years, Mexico and the U.S. have worked together to effectively reduce the billions of dollars of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines trafficked across national borders. Creel adds that Mexico has made unprecedented progress in the jailing of notorious drug kingpins such as Benjamin Arellano Fox, head of the Tijuana cartel, and Osiel Cardenas, leader of the Gulf cartel. In recent weeks, however, it has become clear that the incarceration of these cartel heads is not helping to impede the drug war.

According to Michael Yoder, the U.S. consul in Nuevo Laredo, Arellano and Cardenas, working in close collaboration from their adjacent prison cells, are running their operations from within La Palma—one of Mexico’s toughest maximum-security prisons—with the help of corrupt guards and administrators. Recently, Mexico’s federal authorities raided La Palma in an effort to regain control of the prison from Arellano and Cardenas—an episode raising legitimate questions concerning Mexico’s ability to combat the drug war in a professional and effective manner. Given these circumstances, one could argue that Garza’s claims are, in fact, not an exaggeration of the truth. Rather, drug-related corruption appears to be a neglected reality that officials, such as Interior Minister Creel, must confront with actions instead of snarling rhetoric. If he were to do so, perhaps Mexico could move off the U.S.’s “Majors List,” the government’s list of “major drug-transit or major illicit drug-producing countries.” Named to the 2004 list, the report stated that “the vast majority of illicit drugs entering the United States continue to come from South America and Mexico.” Still, when it is convenient for the Bush administration—such as the effective functioning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or appreciation of Fox’s past support for Washington’s anti-Castro maneuvers—the White House does not hesitate to express its positive feelings about Fox.

Lack of Coordination

There may be some merit in Garza’s accusations that Mexican authorities are unable to “come to grips with the rising drug warfare” that is plaguing the nation and undoubtedly contributing to the border crisis, as Garza stated in his letter. But Mexico is not solely to blame; the Bush administration must also shoulder much of the culpability. The proposed huge hiring program of new agents outlined in the bill would nearly double the size of border patrol within the next five years—a monumental increase in manpower that could help stymie the rampant violence along the border. According to Border Patrol statistics, violence along the Arizona border has been particularly high: agents along a 260-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border—more commonly known as the Tucson sector—are being assaulted at a rate of once every two days.

Tom Ridge, then-secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, indicated that, in spite of the ineffectiveness of the administration’s border deterrence strategy, the president would not seek to have the funding appropriated for the additional 2,000 agents for the fiscal year of 2006. In a series of tactless remarks, Ridge referred to the intelligence bill’s 10,000 agents to be hired over ten years as “fools gold” and an ineffective use of Homeland Security funds. Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson’s comments echoed Ridge’s sentiments, when he stated that funding issues within the department precluded such a large increase in man power and as a result the addition of 2,000 border patrol agents annually “would not be doable [this year] within our budget constraints.”

It would appear that the remarks of both Ridge and Hutchinson, who resigned his post on March 1, seem to reflect Washington’s primary focus on the budgetary requirements of the Middle East. While it is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security to “mobilize and organize our nation to secure the [nation] from terrorists,” ensuring “safe and secure borders,” the White House continues to sacrifice the integrity of its domestic policies in order to combat serious issues abroad. Despite the departure of both Ridge and Hutchinson, it is rather unfortunate that Americans will, in all likelihood, continue to be subjected to a similar array of mixed signals from this administration’s erratic history regarding border security policies.

Role Reversal

Bush’s decision to withdraw the funding originally set forth in the intelligence overhaul bill is certainly peculiar. In a letter to Congress while the bill was being debated, the president praised the increased hiring of border patrol officials, calling it “an important step in strengthening our immigration laws.” Why then has he so suddenly turned his back on such a pivotal issue involving national security? Senator F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed his disappointment concerning former Secretary Ridge’s comments, citing them as contradictory to the security reforms previously praised by Bush. In a letter of his own, Sensenbrenner wrote to Bush petitioning him to reconsider his decision and asking for the president’s full support for the measure. “Now that you have signed into law the conference report implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, we […] are asking you to join us in seeking full funding for the resources it authorizes.”

T.J. Bonner, President of the National Border Patrol Council (NPBC), called Bush’s decision to retract funding for a staffing increase a grave error. He also stated that Bush’s plan to substitute sensors and surveillance technology in exchange for the proposed 10,000 border patrol agents—an approximate $74 million endeavor—strains credibility. Although this technology may be useful in locating illegal border-crossers, it presents neither a physical deterrent nor an effective barrier.

Terrorism Remains Prevalent

The recent diplomatic spat with Mexico highlights Washington’s need for national borders to remain an effective barrier against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The potential problem, however, is that increased security along the border could possibly disrupt the normal functioning of free trade under the guidelines of NAFTA. The challenge for the U.S., then, is striking a delicate balance between the safeguarding of national interests and the flow of trade.

Although no evidence to date indicates that either terrorists or WMD have crossed the border into the U.S., the potential risk remains high. A February 17 article in the New York Times (“U.S. Aides Cite Worry on Al Qaeda Infiltration from Mexico”) suggested that Al Qaeda has considered infiltrating the U.S. through the Mexican border. Although this information was reported in written testimony by Admiral James Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, no conclusive evidence currently exists to support the case. Rather, these warnings seem to represent the increasing concerns of law enforcement officials and those who believe terrorism to be the U.S.’s top threat.

It’s Not About the Money

The lack of coordination between the U.S. and Mexico, as witnessed in the series of recent border disputes, should not and cannot continue to be a platform for such undiplomatic, "he-said-she-said" displays. Rather, there must be an emphasis on confronting these issues together with cooperative law enforcement and policy making. Garza, in an attempt to smooth some of the feathers he had managed to ruffle, announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development will pledge $5 million over the next four years to assist Mexico in the cultivation of justice reforms promoting professional training for prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. This move, certainly a step in the right direction, however, must be viewed cautiously when taking into consideration the president’s decision to revoke the intelligence overhaul bill’s funding.

Interestingly enough, the border issue does not seem to be a question of proper funding as witnessed by the combined $79 million offered by President Bush and Ambassador Garza. Rather, it is matter of providing the necessary reinforcements so eloquently termed as “fools gold” by former Secretary Ridge. If anything at all, Ridge’s comments seem to imply something that most already know: the war in Iraq will continue to be Washington’s primary focus. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the U.S.-Mexican border controversy continues to develop in light of the Senate’s decision to amend the intelligence overhaul bill and as a result of the outcome of the North American Summit.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Adam Kleiman.

March 22, 2005

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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