Efforts are under way on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to reform the
national security relationship between the two nations in response to increased
Experts agree on two points: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 signaled a reappraisal
of U.S. and Mexican security relations, and the pace of the change is painfully
slow and endangered by political sensitivities.
Seeking to protect the interests of both nations, the Department of Homeland
Security and its approximate Mexican counterpart, the Investigation and National
Security Center (CISEN), formed six working groups in January 2003 to analyze
protection of critical infrastructure along their 2,000-mile shared border.
The six groups are divided into sectors: health, energy, water, telecommunications,
agriculture and transportation. The goal is to create an inventory of vulnerable
systems and prioritize them in terms of risk, according to Mexican and American
officials in Washington. The six groups’ steering committee has met on
four occasions, the last one in Mexico City in February, a senior Mexican embassy
official told National Defense.
The goal of the groups is to determine which shared assets pose the greatest
threat if they are targeted by terrorists, according to Francis “Pancho”
Kinney, deputy director of the office of international affairs at DHS.
“We’ve been trying to do risk management so that we can invest
our resources effectively,” he said. “What we’re trying to
find are those things that, if they attacked, would really hurt us.”
The agriculture group has identified nodes of vulnerability in the food chain
and has incorporated existing food screening activities in both countries into
one web-based communication system. In the area of public health, the group
is preparing a manual to address information sharing between nations during
a epidemiological crisis, and has established a group to oversee such coordination.
The water group has already completed its inventory of critical infrastructure,
including dams and power plants, on the Rio Grande, Colorado and Tijuana Rivers.
The critical infrastructure program is a model for greater cooperation across
borders, Kinney said, because it is working around traditional roadblocks and
addressing shared concerns. “We’re trying to convince every one
of the 22 agencies within the department to look and see what the condition
of their relationship with Mexico is, and see if it is strong enough to help
their mission,” Kinney said. “In most cases it’s not.”
Exceptions are notable, he said, such as the working relationship between the
U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican Navy. Also facilitating an attitude change are
cross-border power outages and public health threats, which accentuate the closeness
of the two nations’ infrastructure.
“We basically have an integrated food supply. We learned that last year
with that mad cow (disease) in Canada,” Kinney noted, and added that the
Mexican economy stands to suffer enormously from the security reaction to a
successful terror attack that came through Mexico.
The six working groups are unheralded elements of a larger effort called the
U.S.-Mexico Border Partnership, a 22-point plan that was signed by Secretary
of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Governance Santiago Creel in April 2003.
The effort aims to control the flow of people and goods across the border by
forging bilateral cooperation and employing new technologies.
Some of the goals reflect the different priorities of the nations involved.
A special effort has been made to train border officials to react swiftly to
immigrants in danger from the natural elements and the treachery of human smugglers,
or coyotes. “Mexico seems more interested in safety than security,”
The formation of the groups was done discreetly to insulate the effort from
politics, according to Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, the director of the Mexico
Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which co-produced
a report with the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México
recommending steps to expand bilateral efforts to tighten security.
“As you can well imagine, this was not something made public,”
he told National Defense. “To avoid internal resistance, they chose very
operational-type folks who are just interested in substance and moving forward…Most
are mid-level public servants of a more technocratic nature versus politicians.
If you made it just political, you’d never get anywhere.”
The delicate politics are present on both sides of the border. The CSIS report
cites mistrust as one of the largest impediments to cross-border cooperation.
Mexico is sensitive about sovereignty issues, especially in regard to its powerful
northern neighbor. Security threats were perceived as being exported by the
United States, with Mexico tasked with shouldering the burden of any new security
measures. Domestically, being too close to Washington, D.C. can be a political
liability for a Mexican administration.
U.S. concerns include sharing information that belongs to private companies.
In Mexico, the government owns nearly all the infrastructure along the border
region, while approximately 90 percent of U.S. infrastructure is in private
sector hands. Also, exposing national security vulnerabilities is always uncomfortable
for U.S. agencies, given the level of corruption in all levels of Mexican government
and law enforcement.
Although law enforcement cooperation in manhunts, cargo registration and anti-drug
operations has increased, the overall national security picture reveals a massive
land border susceptible to attack, with no national protocols in place for dealing
with large cross-border incidents, close to zero joint planning, and little
interoperability between counterpart agencies.
“Neither country is at a level of preparedness to address such an incident,”
Peschard-Sverdrup said. “I don’t think there’s the political
will or money required. It’s not a high enough priority to be next on
Critical infrastructure in Mexico, the report noted, could be targeted by terrorists
attempting to indirectly harm to the United States, including oil and natural
gas production facilities, pipelines, water supplies and power generating stations.
The 2003 cascading power failure that swept the East Coast and Canada demonstrated
how these systems ignore political borders, according to Peschard-Sverdrup.
Energy resources are of key importance. For example, more than half of Mexico’s
oil production comes from the Cantarel field in the Gulf of Mexico, and all
of it passes through the small port of Dos Bocas in Tabasco. Approximately 15
percent of U.S. oil imports hail from Mexico, making the oilfield and port prime
targets—nowhere close to the U.S. border.
The April 25, 2004 attack on two oil-shipping platforms off Basra, Iraq, illustrates
the fragility of oil infrastructure. Insurgents in three small explosive-laden
boats tried to ram the Khawr al-Amaya and al-Basra oil terminals. American and
Iraqi security forces, keeping a two-mile cordon around the terminals, intercepted
the boats, which exploded before reaching the terminals. The incident killed
three American sailors and shut down shipments from both platforms for a day,
which delayed a million barrels of exports and doubled insurance costs, according
to media reports.
Other vital infrastructure targets are located far from United States soil,
but the working groups’ mandate does not necessarily encompass them. Peschard-Sverdrup
explained DHS is “pushing the envelope” to include other targets
within Mexico, although CISEN claimed they are only discussing installations
on their northern boundary.
If politicians in the Mexican legislature thought Americans were snooping in
their country too deeply, he said, “it could create a backlash and the
progress made up to today would be set back.”
At DHS, the hope is that a good start will lead to a new paradigm of cooperation,
one that’s markedly better than the military-to-military relationship.
“Only once in 57 years have we had a secretary of defense go to Mexico—Bill
Perry in 1995,” said Kinney, who accompanied Perry on the trip. “It
took Tom Ridge only two months since he was sworn in to go to Mexico. That’s
2,000 times as quick… The fact that his first international visit was
to Mexico was no accident.”
In Mexico City, the seat of federal power, the worldwide shift in national
security after Sept. 11, 2001 coincided with a political turning point—the
presidential election of Vicente Fox and the end of decades of one-party dominance
at the federal level. The magnitude of the change, however, is yet to be seen.
Fox’s personal familiarity and friendship with President George W. Bush
heightened the sense that bilateral progress was about to reach a new high.
However, after Mexico refused to support the United States during the United
Nations debate over intervening against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the relationship
soured. On a more practical level, keeping up with the birth of the Department
of Homeland Security has been a keen challenge for a nation with a different
national security vision.
The bureaucratic restructuring of 22 federal agencies under DHS and the lack
of reliable liaison officers there, at least in the beginning, led to “some
interruptions and collaboration problems in the implementation of the U.S.-Mexico
Border Partnership,” said a senior Mexican embassy official. “However,
this is no longer the case as the U.S. agencies under the DHS leadership start
to adapt to their new structure.”
Mexican officials point to several changes in its national laws that are intended
to heighten its national security posture. The nation has changed the way it
investigates money laundering, become a participating member of multinational
forums against terrorism, and negotiated several border security agreements
with neighboring countries such as the United States and Guatemala. A similar
agreement with Belize is pending, Mexican officials said.
Not surprisingly, many of these efforts have a law enforcement focus. FBI and
Mexican federal police have engaged in joint relations, particularly in training,
since the signing of the Mexico-U.S. Plenary Group on Law Enforcement in 1995.
The military and federal intelligence agencies have no such counterpart.
Mexican institutional problems—structural, historical and political—hamper
the transformation. Mexican law does not define “national security”
as an interest. The country is divided into 36 military zones, and zone commanders
have authority over all troops in their region. Cooperation in the face of crisis
is hampered by the history of mistrust and poor communications between police
and the military on the federal level, and between Federales and state agencies.
Furthermore, intelligence gathering has been aimed at domestic targets, particularly
combating insurgencies in Oaxaca and Chiapas. The structure of the government
blocks national security collaborations between the executive and legislative
The situation is slowly changing, as the CSIS report documents. In October
2003 the Mexican congress formally presented a national security law. The initiative
was cleared in the Mexican Senate, but it is currently under discussion in committees
of the lower house.
This initiative is expected to be included in the legislative agenda for the
session of the Mexican congress starting in September, Mexican embassy officials
Fox has used the new security paradigm in a bid to fight corruption within
law enforcement and intelligence institutions.
At a recent conference, Lt. Gen. Edward Anderson, deputy commander of U.S.
Northern Command, discussed the “complex and challenging” relationship
between the United States and Mexico and called for fuller military cooperation
on the southern border. He noted that Mexican military officials observed a
recent NORTHCOM anti-terrorism exercise, called “Unified Defense,”
from Fort Sam Houston, indicating a level of interest that had been lacking
“We need to expand NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) to
become the North American Defense Command. North America means Mexico,”
he said in a speech at a recent conference. “Mexico is a little bit hesitant.
But we’re not worried. It will come.”
When NORTHCOM was created, the Mexican government went to great lengths in
television appearances to distance itself from the U.S. military command. Experts
say the mindset and structure of the two nations’ militaries do not lend
themselves to cooperation, because the Mexican military has a command structure
more independent of civilians.
“Part of the problem with NORTHCOM is that the Mexican secretary of defense
has the mindset that his interlocutor should be General [Richard] Myers,”
chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said Peschard-Sverdrup. “The military
is a very closed institution. Now they’ve been called on to take on a
new vision, a new mission. … The military has made, in relative terms,
progress. But they still fall short of expectations of the U.S. military, who
would like to see a bolder Mexican military response to cooperation. What may
seem to the U.S. military as a small step to the Mexican military is a great