The security situation in Mexico remains poor, with the country experiencing renewed violence at unacceptable levels. 2017 was among the most violent in Mexico’s history, and the violence has continued through this year. The large-scale breakdown of law-and-order helped propel Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to Mexico’s presidency . Although how precisely AMLO intends to restore public safety remains generally unclear, one early proposal is quite promising for both Mexico and the United States.
According to Alfonso Durazo, whom López Obrador reportedly has selected as his public security chief, the new administration will try to create a Mexican border police force . This agency will operate at Mexico’s southern and northern borders, with a focus on stemming the flows of guns, drugs, and undocumented immigrants. This proposal is a necessary next step in Mexico’s development of modern law enforcement and border management institutions.
Historically, the Mexican government has avoided actions and policies that smacked of carrying out U.S. immigration or border security policy . Domestic politics militated against it, as it would have meant, in effect, the Mexican government acting against its own citizens who were economic migrants to the United States. This situation not only would that have posed political and financial difficulties, but also Mexico’s law establishes a right to migration for its citizens. As Mexican officials saw it, the legal requirement stretched so far as to prevent any efforts on their part to manage how migrants exited the country. Cooperation with U.S. border authorities in this era was conspicuous by its absence.
Through the 1990s bilateral efforts began to address border security
. Mexico created Grupo Beta within its national immigration agency (the Instituto Nacional de Migración). Grupo Beta did not arrest undocumented migrants, but it could provide aid to migrants in distress. It also provided information on the dangers of crossing, and it could arrest smugglers. For the first time, Grupo Beta provided a counterpart, if small, to communicate regularly with the U.S. Border Patrol.
The root cause for this sprout of coordination was growing evidence of the game-changing impact NAFTA would have on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, dislocated from traditional agriculture and jolted by currency fluctuations, migrated north. Trade flows began their massive expansion from $80 billion in 1993 toward $685 billion last year. For the first time since the U.S.-Mexican war in the nineteenth century the border zone, long a stepchild in both Washington and Mexico City, came to really matter.
The explosion of violence in Mexico following Felipe Calderón’s election in 2006 and his historic crackdown on organized crime led to the U.S.-Mexico Mérida Initiative . Mérida focused primarily on law enforcement in Mexico and the so-called “kingpin” strategy of targeting cartel leaders. At the same time, it helped lay the groundwork for an assumption of shared responsibility by the United States and Mexico for cross-border security issues in the wake of 9/11. The concept of “co-responsibility,” and particularly its operational implementation on the ground, grew substantially during the Obama Administration, as the two governments launched in 2010 the 21st-century border management initiative.
As important as these initiatives were, they left unresolved whether and how Mexico would secure its borders, in particular between the ports of entry. There was, and remains, no agency like U.S. Customs and Border Protection with clear law enforcement authority and a mission to secure Mexico’s borders.
Enrique Peña Nieto took a step towards such an agency by forming a “gendarmerie” within the Mexican Federal Police. Theoretically, the gendarmerie could have assumed border security functions but these never were realized. Nonetheless, the Peña Nieto administration took important steps to address border security in concert with the United States. Most significantly, the administration responded in 2014 to the flood of Central Americans crossing its borders by implementing its Southern Border Strategy. Under this strategy, which the United States supported, Mexico has deported more than 500,000 Central Americans. In effect, Mexico was conducting “border enforcement” but without confronting the issue head-on publicly or internally as a political matter.
As much as the AMLO proposal is an evolution of these prior efforts, it would embody a remarkable jump forward. Three factors created the conditions that would permit AMLO to pursue it. First, Mexico is no longer a significant source or sending country for migrants. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, Mexicans accounted for substantially less than half of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions at the U.S. southwest border . From 1.6 million apprehensions of Mexicans in FY2000, the Border Patrol apprehended only 128,000 Mexicans in FY2017. Indeed, research shows that there has been a net outflow of Mexicans from the United States in the past several years. As fewer Mexicans seek to migrate and more are returning to Mexico, the politics of border enforcement in the country is changing.
Second, and related, Mexico’s economy has grown dramatically. Mexico currently has the world’s thirteenth largest economy and, according to the OECD, will have the fourth or fifth within a generation. As Mexico continues to develop, it has and will increasingly become a destination country for migrants from Central America and elsewhere. Mexico is confronted therefore by its own need to manage and control migration, and it has little time to waste in doing so.
Finally, the Mexican people are fed up with the criminality, violence, and corrupt law enforcement that have plagued their country. The election of AMLO shows that the Mexican public is open to new approaches to countering the gangs and organized crime. It is a “Nixon to China” moment, as López Obrador can design and implement policy prescriptions other Mexican politicians would not or could not even contemplate.
Not only are the conditions ripe for such a border security force proposal, on the merits, it is critical to Mexico’s capacity to break the cycle of criminality and meaningfully restore public safety. The nature of the violence in Mexico has changed in the last few years: it is no longer a power struggle among a few large, hierarchical organizations over smuggling routes into the United States. Instead, it increasingly is violent, uncontrolled warfare among smaller gangs to control drug distribution and other crime like extortion and kidnapping at the local level in addition to human and drug smuggling plazas into the United States. For this reason, the violence and potential response to it have come to be viewed as a purely Mexican domestic problem.
But the border remains deeply connected to the cycle of criminality in Mexico . Guns and cash that flow south from the United States, as well as weapons from Central America, transported north, support the gangs and fuel the violence. Human smuggling of Central Americans heading for the United States provides another lucrative line of business, as well as easy targets for criminal predation.
To succeed in restoring public safety, Mexico must address these border-centric drivers of the crime and violence it is currently experiencing in that zone. An investment in a border police force, coupled with other law enforcement and criminal justice reform measures, represents a smart approach for the incoming Mexican administration’s public security strategy.
Mexico urgently needs to continue addressing irregular immigration. The economic and security situation in Central America is unlikely to improve. As such, large numbers of people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador will continue to flee poverty and violence as a generation of Mexicans did before them. With continuing investments in U.S. border security and continued economic growth in Mexico, it should be expected that these immigrants will increasingly view Mexico as their destination country and not simply as a transit zone. Mexico needs to put in place the structures to confront this challenge over the long term, one component of which is a dedicated border enforcement agency, to include a modern asylum process.
For its part, the United States should support López Obrador’s effort. A competent and reliable Mexican border police force can be a powerful asset in disrupting unlawful flows of drugs and people to the United States . It would constitute a vital complement to U.S. border security strategy. The parameters of such support are straightforward: technical advice and capacity building assistance, which CBP, including the U.S. Border Patrol, is uniquely situated to provide. This will help Mexico learn from a premier border force, and it will help create invaluable operational relationships between the agencies to support an even more effective partnership. Vetting and anti-corruption should be another focus area for U.S. assistance, as a compromised Mexican border police force could be worse than no border force at all.
Experience and history teach that trying to manage the border unilaterally from either side is doomed to partial success at best. The deployment of a Mexican border force creates the platform for significantly increased policy as well as operational coordination between the United States and Mexico, which, more than other recent proposals that have been tried or raised, will drive the type of security improvements the Trump administration has been seeking.