Home / Articles / How the U.S. and Mexico Can Take Back the Border—Together
On March 3, masked gunmen surrounded the United States consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, departing the exterior perimeter after a fifteen minute standoff. Ten days later, in Ciudad Juárez, three U.S. consulate employees were assassinated. Days later, Robert Krentz, an Arizona rancher who routinely gave water to illegal immigrants, was gunned down by a man who fled into Mexico. On April 2, after insurgents ordered civilians to leave the border town of El Porvenir, terrified locals sought asylum in Texas. One week later, a hand grenade exploded inside the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo. On April 21, armed men seized two hotels in downtown Monterrey, emptied all rooms, and whisked away four guests and two receptionists. Mexico may not be a failed state, but the north is in chaos.
During the late 19th century, the U.S. and Mexico reduced banditry on the border through bi-national cooperation. From 1881 to 1910—one generation after a war—Mexico’s president, Porfirio Diaz, joined with a series of American presidents to patrol the border together. In west Texas, Mexican rurales rode with Texas Rangers who were pursuing Comanches. In Arizona Territory, Mexican and American soldiers mounted joint campaigns against Apache warriors and Chinese immigrants. Cooperation ended during the Mexican Revolution, and in 1924, rum-runners violating Prohibition led Congress to create the Border Patrol.
In the past sixty years, the United States and Mexico have designed supranational treaties that strengthen both sides of the border. The 1944 Water Treaty, 1983 La Paz Agreement, and 1994 NAFTA Free Trade Zone created cross-border corridors, established bi-national authorities, and provided geographic structure to partnerships. These treaties have been imperfect, but they have succeeded in unifying policy efforts at local, state and federal levels.
An appropriate legal framework for border cooperation between the US and Mexican militaries does not exist. Homeland Security policy makers hamstring themselves with ad hoc interpretations of the 19th century posse comitatus laws. These edicts are necessary to prevent soldiers from usurping police roles, especially in urban areas. But posse comitatus rules are not useful in remote, rugged terrain. Deterring drug and gun runners from empty corridors is technologically expensive and manpower intensive. Securing mountainous deserts is not a police function, nor can virtual walls handle this task. This job is for U.S. and Mexican soldiers.
Conversations about border solutions often end when one suggests the military. In May 1997, U.S. Marines hiding near the west Texas border shot and killed 17-year-old Esequiel Hernandez. The young man—who had a Marine Corps recruiting poster taped to his bedroom wall—had fired a .22 rifle towards their position, likely believing the camouflaged bodies were wild animals pursuing his goats. Hernandez had no idea the military was authorized to operate in secret just a stone’s throw from his front porch.
In contrast to this ineffective policy of covert observation (which began in 1990 under Defense Secretary Richard Cheney), a rational military deployment would become an overt feature of the U.S.-Mexico border. The forum for crafting this should be the International Boundary and Water Commission, a bi-national organization responsible to the State Department for delineating the border. Advised by commission representatives, U.S. and Mexican defense officials could demarcate a series of joint operating regions ten miles from any city. Peacekeepers would function both as a deterrent and a humanitarian presence. Using military forces in a limited capacity frees more officers and Border Patrol agents to walk beats. Police and policia can partner in the cities, while soldiers and soldados jointly guard the badlands.
The U.S. should not unilaterally deploy soldiers to the border; Mexico City would justifiably protest a threat to their sovereignty. A mutual resolution, in contrast, emphasizes shared responsibility. By establishing joint federal authority in the desert and mountains along the border, the U.S. and Mexico address smuggling both north and south. A border deployment also gives Mexican soldiers a clearer mission than a vague mandate to “beat the cartels”—a goal that, despite their patriotism and valor, is not being achieved.
How can we trust Mexican institutions notorious for corruption? Halfway around the world, the United States is training local security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we can spend billions on nations well beyond our shores, can we not cooperate with our neighbor and third largest trading partner? Both leaders would benefit as well: an exercise of strength by President Obama would increase popular support for immigration reform, and a judicious repositioning of Mexican soldiers would lower violence, allowing President Calderón’s party to claim an achievement before Mexico’s 2012 presidential election.
But isn’t this border war all because of our failed war on drugs? Marijuana legalization is a practical policy for many reasons, but legalizing drugs alone will not bring peace to the border. Mexico’s drug war is about power as well as economics. If the state cannot shield its citizens, rogues will gladly fill the void—taxing innocents as compensation for “protection” and grotesquely bleeding those who refuse to bow.
On midnight of September 16, 2010, Mexico will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s “Grito de Dolores,” the cry for rebellion that sparked Mexico’s war of independence from Spain. As the drug war escalates, Washington must respond to the screams of frustration on both sides. The United States and Mexico must take back the border—lest the ghosts of revolutionaries find another incarnation amidst the current carnage.