Mexican-U.S. Border Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles
Mexican-U.S. Border Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles
Every year, thousand of immigrants, tourists, goods, and drugs enter the United States from Mexico or enter Mexico from the United States. Tensions over the border regarding the importing of illegal goods, including drugs, legal and illegal immigration, as well as the matter of cultural domination have made relations between the two countries challenging.
- The immigration of Mexican workers—legal and illegal—causes considerable tension. Some Americans feel that Mexican workers take jobs that would otherwise go to U.S. citizens and depress wages; others believe that these are positions that would otherwise go unfilled and that the workers actually help increase U.S. economic growth.
- Many Mexicans who are living in the United States, including those who may hold U.S. citizenship, have relatives in Mexico, and feel an abiding affinity for their homeland. Some U.S. citizens are suspicious of what they perceive to be divided loyalty.
- Both Mexico and the United States are challenged in terms of addressing the flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States. Mexico has experienced considerable corruption of its political and law enforcement systems, undermining interdiction efforts.
- Labor unions and other groups in the United States are concerned that major manufacturing activities will move—or have already moved—to Mexico, where wages are cheaper and regulations are less stringent.
• Border towns in Mexico, which cater to U.S. tourists, and Mexicans in the United States are concerned about being overwhelmed by U.S. culture and losing their own unique Mexican culture.
A two-thousand-mile long border joins Mexico and the United States. This border was part of a dispute that sparked the Mexican American War (1846-48). That war was resolved under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which permanently excised from Mexican control the lands of present day Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Since then, relations between the United States and Mexico have become more friendly. In 1994 the United States, Canada, and Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which encouraged free trade across their respective borders. The agreement brought renewed attention to the U.S.-Mexican border, particularly to the cheap labor, lower government restrictions on working and environmental standards, and the illegal trafficking of drugs and immigrants available from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River.
Mexico's border towns are booming. For many years the U.S.-Mexican international border was considered a "no-man's land." Much of the border territory is arid and sparsely populated. Towns such as Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Nogales, Piedras Negras, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros dominated life on the Mexican side of the border. Between 1940 and 2000 these towns experienced very rapid growth, and their importance to both Mexico and to the United States has increased. The towns are located in Mexico's six border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. Over the last forty-five years the population of these states has increased dramatically from 3.7 million to 15.2 million people. During this same time period the thirty-nine towns along the U.S. border have grown more than twenty-fold. Their combined population today is close to five million people. Authorities on both sides of the international border have been forced to provide better water, housing, hospitals, and schools for the growing population. While the two countries cooperate on a number of issues, including environmental and natural resource matters, conflicts regarding immigration, culture, trade, and drugs continue to impact the border region and the relations between the United States and Mexico.
Mexican immigrants have long been attracted to the border by job opportunities and higher than average wages. Historically, agriculture and livestock production supported the border populations, and industries that serviced these sectors thrived. In addition, Mexican border towns were initially seen as safe havens for fugitives from U.S. law. During the Prohibition era in the United States (1920-33), Ciudad Juarez became notorious for its growing number of bars and bootleggers who smuggled alcohol into southwestern states of the United States, a precursor to the prolific drug trade that would develop in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Throughout the Great Depression, from 1929 to the early 1940s, an economic slump created widespread misery and poverty on both sides of the border. In the early 1940s World War II created an economic boom. The U.S. government encouraged Mexican immigrants to cross the border to work in U.S. agriculture, as it needed this labor to replace that of U.S. citizens who were called to fight the war. With U.S. government support Mexican immigrants came to the aid of its northern neighbor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s U.S. demand for Mexican labor continued. A mutually beneficial dependency developed. However, as U.S. soldiers returned from war looking for work, political pressure mounted to tighten immigration laws, and border crossing grew more difficult. Tighter border controls caused the population in Mexican border towns to swell.
Border cities catered over time to changing values, economic climates, and tastes. Handicrafts grew as tourism rose. Some U.S. citizens took day trips visit the foreign country so close to their native soil. Mexican border towns staged bullfights, horse races, cockfights, and exotic nightclub acts to attract U.S. dollars. "Quickie" divorces provided swift, cheap, reduced-trauma means for ending bad marriages. Many U.S. citizens came to Mexican border towns seeking such services, as well as medical cures that were not yet approved by the U.S. government but were available in Mexico. To the dismay of both U.S. and Mexican officials narcotics, gun running, and contraband traffic also increased along the border.
In the Mexican capital of Mexico City the borders were increasingly seen as a center for introducing U.S. values, morals, attitudes, products, and institutions—a threat to Mexican culture. Some Mexican women along the border, for example, believed that marrying a white American was a symbol of upward mobility. Values clashes have been a constant source of tension along the border, and U.S. influence has often been viewed as corrupting.
Many fronterizos, those living in the Mexican border towns, work in U.S. companies and visit the United States often, though most have not visited Mexico City or other destinations in central and southern Mexico. English words are mixed in with their Spanish when they speak, and street signs are often in English to help tourists. The fronterizos consume U.S. products, while tourist demand for Mexican food, music, and handicrafts does more to keep these alive than does local demand. The region's culture has become an amalgam of Mexican and U.S. cultures.
Community leaders in Mexican border towns resent the perception that they are less Mexican than residents in other parts of Mexico. On the contrary, they argue that they are "Mexicanizing" Americans. They blame Mexico City for any dilution of Mexican culture by arguing that not enough has been done for them by the federal government to integrate them with the rest of Mexico economically and culturally. They say that their links to the United States are matters of necessity, not of choice.
Much of the trade between the United States and Mexico goes through the border towns. The economies of the two nations at this juncture are firmly linked. In addition, the high level of traffic—be it in goods or humans—flowing across the border makes the area an appealing location for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances in being overlooked in the mass of travel crossing the border each day. The increase in illegal immigration has strained U.S.-Mexican relations, while more drugs cross the border into the United States from Mexico than from any other location. With crime lords firmly entrenched, the border towns became rife with corruption. The Mexican government even produced a document entitled "Cartilla de paisano," or Brotherly Document, to inform Mexicans along both sides of the border how to deal with abusive or corrupt border officials.
Between 1960 and 1980 it became apparent to U.S. officials that U.S. federal aid was needed on both sides of the border to stabilize populations and normalize relations. Federal money began flowing into common water projects, roads, schools, housing, and hospitals. To appease industrious Mexican shopkeepers who witnessed Mexican customers streaming across the border into places like Brownsville, Texas, to buy merchandise, Mexican officials gave permission to import duty free U.S. goods into Mexican border towns. U.S. legislation began to favor "in-bond" border factories in Mexico to provide alternatives to massive immigration into the U.S. for Mexican workers. These factories mushroomed on the Mexican side of the border, where such they became known as maquiladores. Maquiladores imported raw materials from the United States duty-free and exported finished products. U.S. tariffs were paid only on the value-added. These factories improved life along the Mexican side of the border and provided higher wages. The wages, relatively high in comparison to that available elsewhere in the country, attracted workers from throughout Mexico.
Non-unionized labor was part of the attraction of maquiladores for U.S. businesspeople. Organized labor in Mexico and the United States objected to the arrangement. Most laborers in the electrical assembly plants, textile factories, and fabrication facilities on the Mexican side of the border were young women—women formed ninety percent of the labor force in some factories. Male unemployment, however, increased. Labor organizers theorized that plant managers hired so many Mexican women because women were less likely than men to organize. Northern Mexico has a long history of anti-unionism, and U.S. companies operating in the border towns did not want unions involved in their work. As a result, unions suffered and wages were reduced. This attracted more U.S. investors, to whom the low wages and lack of organized labor appealed. Capital poured in, a trend that accelerated with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
In addition to skilled labor, such as engineers, doctors, lawyers, and managers, many Mexicans crossed the border seeking jobs as maids and unskilled day laborers, including gardeners and janitors. Undocumented workers—those working without the proper paperwork to work legally in the United States—became a problem, as more people sought jobs than there were jobs available. Border cities began harboring business people who exploited workers' desires for higher U.S. wages by sneaking undocumented workers illegally across the border. Thousands of Mexican immigrants did and do arrive daily, hoping to reach the United States and the promise of a better life.
These immigrants were the frequent victims of crime along the border. The more that U.S. Border Patrols tightened the restrictions around illegal immigration, the more that would-be immigrants need guides to get into the United States. These guides grew to become part of vast organized crime syndicates which control stolen cars, gun running, drug smuggling, and, increasingly, the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Mexico, China, Guatemala, Russia, and elsewhere. Men known as talons, or claws, are predatory recruiters who lurk near bus stations and entice those seeking to cross the border to follow them to safe houses. There, the prospective immigrants wait to make the illegal trip across the border to the United States—usually for a steep fee.
Guides for undocumented workers are known as coyotes. Coyotes lead immigrants through the gullies and mountain passes along the border. Scouts, known as checadores, run interference and try to lead Border Patrols on wild goose chases away from real immigrants in order to increase their chances of success. The trek is often a dangerous one, and Border Patrols often find themselves rescuing illegal immigrants from dire situations, including freezing weather and injury from the harsh natural landscape.
Once on the U.S. side of the border, the new immigrants are turned over to raiteros, or daredevil drivers for hire, who take them north to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Virginia, or Boston. Smugglers often raise the price of passage upon reaching their destination or rape the women and rob the men. Smuggling often resembles kidnapping. As cries for restrictions on illegal immigration mount in the United States, so too does the danger associated with illegal entry into the country. The traffic in illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border is not restricted to Mexicans. Mafiosi charge $20,000 to smuggle Chinese into Mexicali, with its large traditional Chinese-Mexican population, and from Mexicali into San Diego, California. Border Patrols call such immigrants "OTMs," meaning "other than Mexicans." The high fees charged for the passage force immigrants into wage slavery in "sweatshops" for years to pay for their entry into the United States.
In an example of the negative feelings engendered by illegal immigration in the U.S. states most affected by it, California's electorate approved Proposition 187 in 1994. The law ended the state of California's efforts to provide education, housing, and health care for Mexican immigrants. A majority of the electorate obviously believed that such costs outweighed the benefits of cheap labor. Former California governor Pete Wilson denounced "Smugglers Canyon" south of San Diego, a high-traffic smuggling location, and called for a doubling of border patrols. Wilson called in the National Guard to stop illegal immigrants, charged border-crossing fees, and other measures to discourage the influx of Mexican immigrants.
Mexico's Congress retaliated to Proposition 187 and other anti-immigration measures in the United States by allowing Mexicans living in the United States to hold dual citizenship. Mexicans in the United States can now vote in U.S. elections without revoking their Mexican citizenship. Thus empowered, they can use their votes against U.S. politicians who oppose their interests, while still maintaining full political and legal rights in Mexico. The Latino population in the United States is growing at a rapid rate, and the political and social influences of this population are also on the rise. As its influence grows, so too will attention to issues such as immigration and measures such as Proposition 187.
The current immigration system along the U.S.-Mexican border is not meeting the needs of any of the interested parties. U.S. unions are troubled by the legal "guest worker" status of many Mexicans in the United States. They would like to negotiate a new immigration policy to normalize and rationalize labor between the United States and Mexico by increasing the number of permanent work permits issued annually and extending visas issued to Mexican workers who legally enter the United States. This is a measure aimed at encouraging legal immigration and cutting back on the number of illegal immigrants flowing across the border each year. Critics argue that this is a ploy designed to limit Mexican immigration and protect high U.S. union wages. Researchers estimate that Mexico must generate one million jobs annually to employ its youth, a rate which the government has not been able to meet. Some of the resultant overflow finds an outlet in the United States. Under NAFTA Mexico has become the tenth-largest exporting nation on earth; approximately two-thirds of its exports go to the United States. Despite their differences, the two countries do benefit from one another.
The Drug Trade
In 1969 President Richard Nixon authorized "Operation Intercept." Vehicles crossing into the United States from Mexico were systematically searched for drugs. Traffic was stalled for days. Mexican officials were angry because the United States did not notify them of this operation before it went into effect. In addition, the Mexican government argued, the operation merely served to scapegoat innocent Mexicans by blaming the U.S. drug problem on its southern neighbor. Mexican officials argued then as they do now that the United States should attack demand, not supply, if it was serious about eradicating the drug problem. As fast as U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents burned or destroyed Mexican marijuana and opium poppy fields, new ones emerged. Pro-marijuana legalization interests arose and portrayed Mexican drug barons as innocent victims of overzealous U.S. immigration patrols who mistreated and tortured them without probable cause. In 1976 both sides agreed to exchange prisoners to improve U.S.-Mexican relations. The exchange improved relations for a time, but a decade later drugs returned to the borderlands.
Cocaine processing labs appeared in Mexico. The United States had a major problem with Colombian drug cartels in Medellin and Cali, Columbia, whose primary port of U.S. entry for drugs was Miami, Florida. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents succeeded in disrupting the Colombian cartels, which served to shift the bulk of the illegal drug business into the hands of more than nine hundred Mexican drug gangs. Because they are so numerous, they are more difficult to monitor and control. These drug barons have turned the U.S.-Mexican border into one of the world's most violent, corrupt, and dangerous borders. Police on both sides of the border have targeted the top five drug cartels because of their huge volume of business.
Once the Colombia-Miami, Florida, smuggling route diminished in importance, the Mexican-U.S. border rapidly transformed itself into the world's largest drug smuggling route. U.S. border officials estimate that seventy-five percent of all cocaine shipments entering the United States cross Mexico's border with the United States. Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and General Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar, provided a lower estimate of fifty percent. U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, head of the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, alleged that drug barons operate with "virtual impunity" in border cities.
Mexico's drug cartels earn an estimated $30 billion annually. The drug trade within the United States is more than $150 billion per year. The mark-up of drug prices, both in transit and on U.S. streets, is enormous. Some feel that drug smuggling has polluted Mexico's legal and political system and turned Mexico into a "narco-democracy." According to a study conducted by the University of Guadalajara, drug kingpins spend $500 million a year bribing public officials. This is double the entire budget of the Mexican federal attorney general and the federal police. Mexicans argue that similar charges can be leveled against the United States.
Francisco Labastida, former Interior Minister of Mexico, increased spending by nearly $500 million over a three-year period on high-tech law enforcement equipment, planes, ships, and radar to intercept drug traffic. The federal police was known to be riddled with corruption, and Labastida created a new unit to fight drugs. The question then was, who would watch the new police force?
The Arellano Felix brothers dominated drug trafficking through Tijuana, Mexico. Tijuana in the early twenty-first century is the hub of U.S.-Mexican border drug smuggling, like Miami was in the early 1990s. Reynoso grocery stores in the United States order jalapeno peppers and other Mexican food items by the ton. An alliance between the Arellano brothers and the Reynoso brothers made it easy to import tons of cocaine and heroin disguised as peppers and other foods through legal ports of entry. Drugs were also smuggled into the United States through a variety of creative measures, which often slipped unnoticed by Border Patrols.
The nemeses of the Arellano brothers are Joaquim Guzman (Chapo, or Shorty) and Hector Palma (Guero, or Whitey), who form the Sinaloa cartel, also known as the Guzman-Palma crime family. The competition between the two cartels for dominance of the drug trade in their area is deadly and often terrorizes the towns around which the cartels are based.
Juan Garcia Abrego long dominated drug traffic along the Gulf of Mexico. Raul Salinas, brother of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was in business with Abrego. While Carlos Salinas served as president of Mexico, Abrego sold drugs with impunity. After Ernesto Zedillo became president in 1994, both Abrego and Raul Salinas were arrested. In addition, allegations that the Arellano brothers contributed to political campaigns and used political pressure to have their rivals arrested, allowing them to expand, are widespread. Because drugs and politics are so closely aligned, despite the best efforts the Mexican police, many scholars, such as Jorge Castenada, consider Mexico a narco-democracy.
Corruption of Mexican law enforcement officers is a major problem. Drug money is quick and prevalent, while the salary of a Mexican police officer is paltry in comparison. Temptation helps lead to corruption, and not just for law enforcement. Politicians are tempted to get rich quick by helping drug barons launder billions of dollars. Mexican banks, resort hotels, shopping centers, and other organizations are used to "clean up" drug profits—making the origin of the money unclear. When Cardinal Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara spoke out against drug barons in 1993, he was killed. Allegedly, the politicians and gangsters in this region decided to make a statement about power and invincibility by publicly executing Bishop Posada. The message was that they could not be touched, no matter what they did. In 1985 drug dealers in Guadalajara killed Enrique Camarena, a DEA agent, causing a diplomatic crisis between Mexico and the United States. Some believe that drug barons were responsible for the murder of PRI presidential candidate Donaldo Colosio because, they claim, he had cracked down on Pacific Coast—primarily Tijuana—drug rings, while being soft on Caribbean or East Coast gangs. Colosio was killed in the West Coast border town of Tijuana.
The allure of drugs is overwhelming for many. Gangsters and police are seen as interchangeable, since many police work as guards and hitmen for drug lords. Cowboy boots, sunglasses, and assault rifles are cult icons. The Jeep Cherokee and Chevrolet Suburban are viewed as "war wagons." Both drug dealers and police use these vehicles. Their cargo space and durable rugged frames allow them to carry guns and drugs through the canyons and potholes along the border.
Camarillas and Corruption
To date, Mexico's political elite have been divided into camarillas, or political clans. The elites embark on joint business ventures, using their political leverage to secure contracts, licenses, favorable deals, and political protection from fellow members. Corruption at high levels was controlled by camarillas. The clans originated as groups of people who shared the same ideological values and interests. When the PRI held power, state-owned enterprises were promoted. Clan members were assured lucrative jobs, contracts, and other perks. Their children received the best possible education from the state; many of their children were educated at Harvard and Yale, as well as other U.S. universities.
When President Salinas and, later, his successor President Zedillo gained power, they used their position to sell off state-owned enterprises and to privatize the economy. Consequently, the PRI lost control of lucrative funds. The provision of funds based on friendship, kinship, and party loyalty continued, but the pie shrank. More and more camarillas were left out when favors were divided among the winners. Mexican presidents had based their power upon control of state resources. As the state shrank, their power diminished. Once unquestioned, their authority and power were now openly challenged, especially by presidential candidates from the pro-business PAN. Each camarilla had to fight for its life. Without state money, old alliances dissolved. Drug money began to provide new glue, a new source of largesse to replace lost state resources for the losing camarillas, as well as for the criminal class.
Salinas and Zedillo became resigned to the fact that privatization of the economy increased drug trafficking within Mexico. New internal and external tensions would have to be managed if the state was to survive. This traffic is difficult to control within Mexico because 2,400 different police agencies are involved. These police must fight criminals who are clearly "bad guys," as well as fellow officers and corrupt units of privatized security companies who work for drug barons. Each police force is more or less a family-owned fiefdom that specializes in solving a particular type of crime; there are subway police, traffic police, bank police, forestry police, customs police, riot police, judicial police, town police, rural police, federal police, and others. Lured by the large amounts of money, internal corruption in some border town police forces is rampant.
Police units employ undercover agents known as madrinas, or godmothers. These secret cops are paid off the books to avoid detection. They carry guns and do "dirty work," such as killing opponents and stealing cars. Many human rights violations are carried out by madrinas. These police are often co-opted by drug barons; some become rogue cops or freelance agents who sell their services to the highest bidder.
Drug cartel baron Hector "El Guero " Palma of Sinaloa, routinely hired police officers as body guards, informants, look-outs, runners, and hit men. Palma, a former car thief, was one of Mexico's most violent gangsters. In 1995, when his private Leer jet crash-landed on his way to a wedding in Guadalajara, the pilot was killed. The pilot's body was stuffed into a sleeping bag, which was discovered by a local army unit not in Palma's employ. A massive raid on Palma's safe house was ordered by the military. They discovered that he was being protected by eight bodyguards and thirty-two judicial police officers. At Palma's trial it was revealed that he paid $40 million to top federal judicial police commanders in Guadalajara—more than the annual salaries for all federal judicial police for one month, nationwide. Palma admitted to bribing police in nearly every border town. He often was lodged by local police chiefs in their homes when he "inspected" his border smuggling operations.
In the bloodiest shoot-out in the history of Mexico's drug war, two groups of lawmen were pitted against each other. On March 3, 1994, teams of anti-narcotics agents from the federal judicial police were attacked near the U.S. border in Baja California. They were trying to arrest a local drug cartel boss. He escaped in the confusion of the shoot-out. His bodyguards included the Baja California chief of homicide and dozens of state judicial police from Baja California. This created a national scandal in Mexico. Many ethical policemen were embarrassed and ashamed of their fellow officers' outrageous behavior.
Army units have fallen victim to corruption too In Veracruz, regular army units were assigned anti-narcotic duties at the airport. Drug barons corrupted the soldiers, who gunned down seven federal government agents who tried to seize a planeload of narcotics at the Veracruz airport on November 7, 1991, at the Tlatlixcoyan airstrip. By 1996 military personnel occupied top law enforcement in two-thirds of Mexico's states. About forty percent of Mexico's 180,000-person army worked on drug control. General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo became Mexico's drug czar, yet in 1997 Gutierrez was arrested for selling protection to drug king-pins—the same people he was supposed to be working against.
By 1995 internal documents from the Mexican government estimated that fifty percent of the hired guns working for drug barons in Mexico were policemen, soldiers, or individuals who had retired from either service. Most law enforcement agencies are severely compromised, as are armed forces units involved in drug interdiction.
Recent History and the Future
There is reason for optimism in the border conflicts between the United States and Mexico. Law enforcement officers on both sides of the border are learning to respect one another, and cooperation is growing as many officers become acquainted with the laws and police cultures of both nations. Despite significant difficulties involved in fighting drug lords in Mexico and in the United States, as well as official corruption in both nations, progress continues. Efforts to reduce the U.S. demand for illegal drugs may reduce the flow of narcotics across the border, while the United States re-evaluates its immigration policy. Cooperation in these endeavors is enhanced by the closer relationship brought about by NAFTA. The trade agreement requires the two countries to work together on a number of issues, fostering greater understanding of where each stands on a range of issues.
Mexico's proximity to the United States will help it expand its service and information technology sectors. Border populations are assimilating selected elements of both national cultures. This will strengthen efforts to create a more democratic political culture in Mexico. Political reforms will increase U.S. investor confidence and increase the flow of funds into Mexico, helping to modernize its economy and encourage additional cooperation in other areas.
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1822 The Federal Republic of Mexico is established.
1823 Texas, then a part of Mexico, is opened to immigrants from the United States.
1836 The United States becomes the first country to recognize Mexico's independence from Spain. Texas declares itself independent from Mexico.
1846 War breaks out between the United States and Mexico.
1848 The war ends and Mexico loses to the United States territory that today makes up New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, and parts of Colorado.
1910-17 The Mexican Revolution takes place.
1920-33 During the Prohibition era in the United States, Mexican border town Ciudad Juarez becomes known for its growing number of bars and bootleggers who smuggle alcohol into the southwestern states of the United States.
1929 The National Revolutionary Party (which later becomes the PRI) forms in Mexico. It rules Mexico until 2000.
1940s The U.S. war mobilization in World War II helps to improve the Mexican economy.
1960-80 Maquiladores are established in Mexico in an effort to provide industrial development in Mexico to stabilize the populations on both sides of the border. Maquiladores are attractive to U.S. business-people because they offer cheaper, non-unionized labor. They attract Mexican workers as they provide a relatively high wage.
1969 U.S. president Richard Nixon launches "Operation Intercept" to prevent drugs from crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.
1990 A privatization program is initiated in Mexico.
2000 Vicente Fox, a PAN candidate who courts Mexican immigrants to the United States, is elected president of Mexico, ending the PRI's hold on the presidency.