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Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly

Chapter 9. Managing US-Mexico Transborder Cooperation on Local Security Issues and the Canadian Relationship

José M. Ramos

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1This chapter analyzes some concerns and challenges for US-Mexico cross-border cooperation on security issues, with particular emphasis on the experience of the San Diego-Tijuana region. The following three questions are discussed. Why is the Mexico-US border, particularly the Tijuana-San Diego region, important in relation to security issues? What main challenges to transborder management of security issues will occur in the coming years? Can the experience of US-Canada transborder cooperation on security issues be used to improve transborder cooperation on local security issues between Mexico and the United States?

2The main argument presented here is that the different perspectives on transborder security cooperation of Mexico and the United States may reduce the level of cooperation between them in the long term. For Mexico it is more important to protect the regular flow of Mexican labour into the United States, in order to promote economic growth. For the United States, in contrast, these migrants are one of the main bilateral security concerns. In this context Canada-US border cooperation on security issues may provide a lesson that would promote a better long-term relationship between Mexico and the United States. Such an improved relationship would depend on US acknowledgment of the strategic importance of the US-Mexico border to Mexico’s economic growth and development. Both security and development are necessary to stimulate Mexico’s regional and national economies.

3The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has brought Mexico, the United States, and Canada significantly closer. However, bilateral dealings with the United States continue to be the preferred option of both the other countries.


4Relations among the three countries of North America are, in general, reasonably good. Neither Canada nor Mexico supported the United States in the Iraq war and Canada recently declined to participate in US plans for missile defence, decisions that have caused some strains in US relations with both Canada and Mexico. However, the interdependence of the countries of North America makes it imperative for differences to be put aside and for the countries to work together on many issues.

5Table 9.1 outlines the different priorities of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The main difference between Mexico, on the one hand, and the United States and Canada on the other is that Mexico is a developing country. For Mexico the main priority must be to strive for social and economic development within the economic integration framework of NAFTA.

6Clearly, security is important in Mexico’s bilateral relationship with the United States, but it has other social and economic priorities that emphasize the importance of North American integration. If the standard of living in Mexico fails to improve under NAFTA, the integration process will be questioned. In this context the experience of the European Union (EU) in embedding a social charter in public policy may be important for Mexico. This leads to a central question: if Mexico negotiated a social charter with the United States and Canada, would this reduce Mexican immigration into the United States? The EU’s experience offers two key policy lessons. First, structural changes begin at home. Second, targeted investments of external resources can reinforce good domestic-development strategies. Ultimately a combination of these two strategies has proved beneficial for all the EU’s member states. Two approaches based on the experience of EU integration have been proposed for North America: the creation of a North American Development Fund that would involve all three countries in NAFTA; and either an expansion of the substantive and geographic mandate of the North American Development Bank or the creation of targeted funds for infrastructure development through other multilateral institutions (Woodrow Wilson Center 2005).

Table 9.1: Main Concerns of Mexico, Canada, and the United States

Table 9.1: Main Concerns of Mexico, Canada, and the United States

Figure 9.1: Mexican Challenges under Trilateral Cooperation

Figure 9.1: Mexican Challenges under Trilateral Cooperation

7Although security is the priority of the US government, a common agenda for improving the linkage between security and development for the three countries is possible. To this end it is important to discuss what would constitute the main political and economic conditions for such a common agenda, given each country’s different conditions.

8The concept of a more integrated North America can be difficult to fully comprehend. With the Canada-Mexico bilateral relationship still relatively underdeveloped, North America is generally seen merely as the sum of two separate relationships: Canada-United States and United States-Mexico (Abizaid Bucio 2004). Certainly, Canada is highly dependent on access to the US market: about 70 percent of Canadian GDP crosses the border and 50 percent of Canadian manufactured exports are intercompany trade with the United States. Yet it is in Canada’s interest to invest more time and resources in the North American relationship. At present, however, problems that clearly affect all three countries are dealt with bilaterally rather than collectively, and all three countries demonstrate little interest in establishing operational or institutional connections with one another. NAFTA has brought Mexico, the United States, and Canada significantly closer, but bilateral dealings with the United States continue to be the preferred option.

9The US-Mexico and the US-Canada borders are vitally important. Each year some 300 million people, 90 million cars, and 4.3 million trucks cross into the United States from Mexico. At the US-Canada frontier the yearly totals are 110 million people and 15 million commercial shipments, and the two countries conduct US$ 1.3 billion in trade each day (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003). Under this transborder scenario, can the US government both control border security and promote border crossings? Given the importance of Canada and Mexico’s bilateral trading relationships with the United States, it is essential that Mexico and Canada each collaborate closely with the United States on border issues, in order to ensure the safe and efficient flow of people and goods between them. In this context the three countries share three broad goals: (1) strengthening border security to counter and prevent terrorism; (2) maintaining trade flows that benefit both sending and receiving countries; and (3) ensuring orderly migration across their borders (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003, 32).

10The current bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States is larger and more complex than ever, with the two countries sharing fundamental beliefs and values, along with the world’s largest trading relationship. Canada, however, demonstrates only minimal interest in Mexico’s agenda vis-à-vis the United States, and although the potential for the Canada-Mexico relationship is growing, it is still largely unrealized (Canadian Foundation for the Americas 2002).

11Nonetheless, the Canada-US border-security experience may be of interest to Mexicans in seeking answers to questions about promoting economic border development, as well as maintaining and strengthening border security. Clearly, transborder cooperation and planning is the best alternative for long-term economic development. Canada can contribute to Mexico’s development through knowledge-sharing, specifically, enhanced cooperation on science and technology, the development of economic clusters, the promotion of small-and medium-sized enterprises as business incubators, and linking public and academic centres for research and development with productive entities, as in the case of the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (Abizaid Bucio 2004).

12From a Canadian perspective, Mexico, despite its poverty levels and disparities in income and regional development, is a large, vibrant market with a highly educated and capable workforce. Mexico is gradually overtaking Canada’s North American market share not only in low-end (assembly-plant) manufacturing but also in heavy manufacturing and high-technology industries. Competition aside, Mexico also presents a huge and timely opportunity for Canadian trade and investment. Canadian prospects are especially opportune in the areas of agro-foods, other food-related products and services, engineering, consulting, and education (Canadian Foundation for the Americas 2002).

13In general, enthusiasm in Mexico, the United States, and Canada for bilateral and trilateral cooperative security efforts depends on public perceptions that the particular national security concerns in each country are being addressed. Only an ongoing and informed public debate will create the level of support necessary for sustained cooperation (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003, 32).


14The US-Mexico border region is integrated in certain geographic areas. For example, much of the Texas-Mexico border region is essentially a single economic, cultural, and, to an extent, political entity, while in other geographic areas, particularly the California-Mexico region, two distinctly separate entities remain. The border relationship is extremely complex and multilayered. US-Mexico cooperation is often limited by the long and tumultuous history of relations between the two countries, by negative US perceptions of the Mexican migration phenomenon, and by security concerns around drug trafficking, crime, and corruption. In contrast, the US-Canada border can be described as politically closed but economically open. It is also culturally and socially open, in that the region is characterized by strong interpersonal relationships and family ties that straddle the border. Consequently, Mexico must overcome history and negative perceptions to increase its economic integration with the United States and Canada. Improving capacity at the local level is essential for increased economic integration (Canadian Foundation for the Americas 2002). In particular, the main conditions for improving Mexican capacity under trilateral cooperation may be summarized as (1) acquiring better knowledge of regional globalization; (2) achieving a political consensus on economic development; (3) designing projects, strategies, and mechanisms for international cooperation; and (4) promoting a better understanding of local, regional, national, and international issues.

15The San Diego-Tijuana region is one of the major gateways for imports and exports between Mexico and the United States. It is also a major area of drug trafficking. Since 1998 Mexico has supplied approximately 60 percent of the cocaine and 20 percent of the heroin sold in the United States. Almost 60 percent of the narcotics and chemical drugs destined for the United States cross the border between Baja California and California (General Accounting Office 2003). Thus the region is important because the transnational nature of its border issues has resulted in a confluence of objectives at the border that have important implications for the United States. Many of the major border issues (drug trafficking and terrorism, for example) are essentially not “domestic” but rather transnational issues that transcend political boundaries. Addressing these complex issues requires knowledge coordination and cooperation both among US agencies and between them and their Mexican counterparts. The role of Mexican local governments is also important in managing the transnational nature of these border issues. Local governance is understood as a set of public and private mechanisms for monitoring and influencing national-security concerns.

16North American economic development also begins with regional and local empowerment, since the states, provinces, and other local authorities know their areas best. One of the most significant obstacles to economic development, particularly in Mexico, is poor governance at the local level, which suffers from problems with corruption, unusually high turnover of employees, non-collection of property taxes, and the like. Without better governance, particularly improved public safety and the restoration of the rule of law, the region cannot hope to become more economically competitive either within North America or globally (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003).

17To summarize, the major concerns at the US-Mexico border are illegal activities and economic development. Therefore it is crucial to achieve a balance between security and development, despite the different priorities of Mexico, the United States, and Canada.


18The recasting of the bilateral agenda on migration between Mexico and the United States, which was well under way even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, must be reconciled with the new concept of “homeland security” in the United States. Some observers argue that the fight against terrorism is the natural enemy of controlled migration, while others argue that, now more than ever, North America needs to address this issue trilaterally. Migration, security, energy, and labour are among the issues that have the greatest impact on local border cities. Issues such as combating organized crime, drug and human trafficking, and cross-border flows of contraband have already been subjected to intensive cooperative efforts. Currently, however, identifying the problems and opportunities for cooperation under the different political and social systems of Mexico and the United States is the major concern.

19In the case of border policy one major concern and challenge is how to achieve equilibrium between improved border security and economic and social integration in border regions. In other words border security should not disrupt trade and commerce along the border. Of particular concern are waiting times at ports of entry that delay the flow of trade and commerce by as much as two hours at the busiest times of day. Security and trade are linked. Increased security will facilitate trade if there is confidence and trust in the measures taken on both sides of the border. Any steps that are taken must be in the context of a risk-assessment model that is aimed at moving low-risk goods and people while focusing resources on threat mitigation. Management of the border on the basis of risk implies new approaches and techniques that allow clearance procedures for goods and people before they arrive at the physical border (Coalition for Secure and Trade-Efficient Borders 2004).

20Clearly, addressing security and commerce along the borders requires coordination and cooperation between US and Mexican agencies. The question, however, is whether the governments of the United States and Mexico have the same priorities on border-security issues. Over the past fifty years US and Mexican border authorities have been concerned with managing legitimate cross-border commerce and travel while deterring illegal immigration and the smuggling of drugs and other contraband. Before September 11, 2001, waiting times at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry in the San Diego District were already much longer on average than was deemed reasonable by the community and local authorities alike. The security measures taken since September 11, 2001, have altered the normal rhythm and procedures at all border crossings, which has been particularly disruptive to the San Diego-Tijuana economy, the largest and perhaps most dynamic binational region in North America (San Diego Dialogue 2001). However, those involved believe that better law enforcement and flows at the border can be accomplished based on a comprehensive partnership between the federal agencies responsible for port-of-entry operations and the regional community.

21One of the binational management challenges is to identify the knowledge that has been gained about the cross-border phenomenon in recent years and apply it to the current crisis. Identifying very low risk crossers at the San Diego-Tijuana border ports is cited as being particularly important, given that the threat of terrorist penetration is especially acute along the southern border. For example, although in 2004 fewer than 10,000 individuals were apprehended entering the United States illegally from Canada, more than 1.1 million were stopped while trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, the vast majority of these individuals were Mexicans crossing the border for economic or family reasons. Only 3,000 to 4,000 of the approximately 100,000 OTMs (“other than Mexicans”) who were apprehended were from “countries of interest” such as Somalia, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, which have produced or been associated with terrorist cells (US Senate 2005).

22In addition, research has confirmed that it is important to develop the security aspects of border crossings and that the dedicated commuter lane program (SENTRI) has shown that transparency provides a better basis for law enforcement (San Diego Dialogue 2001). Efforts to create a border that provides greater security depend on better intelligence, coordinated national efforts, and international cooperation against terrorists and other international threats. The US strategy to improve border security implies an interrelationship between federal, state, and local issues, because border security involves public security (local and state enforcement) and the prevention of terrorism and drug trafficking (federal enforcement). According to Commissioner Robert Bonner (2003), in order to safeguard the US and North American economies it is important to “reinvent the border.”

23The US National Strategy for Homeland Security involves six major initiatives on border and transportation security. The most important of these is the creation of “smart borders.” The goal of this strategy is to create a “border of the future,” the main elements of which are more personnel, new detection equipment, getting advanced information in automated form to manage risk, and working cooperatively with Mexico and Canada (Office of Homeland Security 2002). Accordingly, since 2002 there has been an increase in the number of personnel and the amount of equipment available for detecting potential terrorists along the borders. However, there are some questions about whether the new personnel and the bureaucracy in general understand the new border-security context. Although they may be aware that the new security approach is aimed at ensuring secure and trade-efficient borders, risk management and assessment must be at the heart of border-management systems. To deal effectively with unknown and high-risk movements of people and goods, the border must be understood in terms of control and efficiency. This does not mean the disappearance of the border. Rather, border-management systems must effectively identify and facilitate known low-risk people and goods by using pre-clearance and other procedures before they arrive at the border (Coalition for Secure and Trade-Efficient Borders 2004). To reach this goal there must be a balance between security and economic concerns, that is, individual border delays that harm productivity and increase the cost of doing business in North America. If the border is a barrier to the efficient flow of people and goods, it will directly affect not only the three countries’ economic potential and quality of life but also issues such as collective rights, collaboration between the three countries, and sovereignty.

24In the case of the security relationship between Mexico and Canada, there are some concerns, the answers to which must be bilateral in nature. Although Mexico shares the same economic space within NAFTA, the border issues between Mexico and the United States are significantly different from those between Canada and the United States. In addition, the dialogue on border issues between Canada and the United States is much more advanced. Indeed, this more advanced Canada-US border cooperation could serve as a model for a US-Mexico accord. However, for now the two borders are so far apart, physically and figuratively, that they require significantly different treatment (Coalition for Secure and Trade-Efficient Borders 2004). Consequently, discussing a strategy for a US-Mexico partnership is important but largely rhetorical (Woodrow Wilson Center 2005) as long as both governments have different approaches and strategies for border security and border economic development.


25On April 20, 2005, US Senator Richard Lugar introduced the North American Cooperative Security Act (NACSA) to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate. The purpose of the bill was to enhance the mutual security and safety of the United States, Canada, and Mexico through better management, communication, and coordination. To achieve these goals, the bill advocated improved procedures for exchanging relevant security information with Mexico and Canada, improved military-to-military relations with Mexico, improved security at the US-Mexico border, establishing a database to track movements of Central American gang members between the United States, Mexico, and Central America, and requiring US government agencies to develop a strategy with their Mexican counterparts to hinder the ability of third-country nationals from using Mexico to gain illegal entry into the United States. The bill recognized that US land borders also serve as channels for illegal immigration, drugs, and other illicit items, and that, given the threat of international terrorism, they may be used by international terrorists, as suggested by reports that al-Qaeda might attempt to have its agents enter the United States illegally through Mexico.

26There is, of course, tension between the economic need for the border to run quickly and smoothly (“time is money”) and the concern for security, which emphasizes careful inspection of each person and vehicle to ensure that drugs, weapons, or terrorists do not get through. The major challenge is to create a border that is both secure and conducive to the rapid passage of commerce that is vital to both economies.

27The United States, Mexico, and Canada released a report entitled The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America on March 23, 2005. The concept of a security and prosperity partnership (SPP) was created by the leaders of the three countries when they met earlier in March. Since September 11, 2001, progress had already been made in deterring cross-border threats while maintaining the efficient movement of people and cargo across North America. The United States signed “smart border’” agreements with Canada and Mexico in December 2001 and March 2002, respectively, in which both parties agreed to improve the pre-screening of immigrants, refugees, and cargo. These agreements also included new documentation requirements and provisions for adding inspectors and updating border-security technologies. Before the United States and Canada formed a united front against terrorists crossing their mutual border they had already signed the “Smart Border/30 Point Action Plan” in 2001 concerning immigration-related issues. The action plan was designed to ensure the secure flow of people and goods, safeguard infrastructure, and provide information-sharing and coordination in the enforcement of these objectives.

28By agreeing to be part of the SPP, the United States, Mexico, and Canada pledged to enhance their common security goals and improve border security. The key element of the SPP was the establishment of a common security perimeter by 2010. Members of the Independent Task Force on the Future of North America, which was coordinated by the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed a detailed set of proposals that would build on the recommendations adopted by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, Mexican President Vicente Fox, and US President George W. Bush at their trilateral summit in Texas in March 2005.

29The economies of both Canada and Mexico depend on increased cooperation with the United States on the issue of security. As Americans feel more and more unsafe, they will likely demand actions to increase border security. Yet, although security is an increasingly complex issue, and despite tremendous public expectations, the United States does not seem to know how to proceed or what effect its security policies will have on the Canadian and Mexican economies (Canadian Foundation for the Americas 2002).

30The concerns that make border issues so difficult to address include the differing levels of development and the dissimilar governmental structures between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada. In effect Mexico and Canada have different levels of administrative capacity for implementing US standards of border security and trade flows, and these differing levels have affected the efficacy of the trilateral proposals that have been formulated by local and regional actors since September 11, 2001. Thus, given the new regional agenda of protecting North America and securing its borders in the fight against international terrorism, the question arises whether it is even possible for the United States and Mexico to maintain a common border-security response. The position taken by Mexican President Vicente Fox after September 11, 2001, reflects a close relationship with US President George W. Bush on matters of border security.

31Some recommendations to deal with the consequences of Mexico and Canada’s differing levels of administrative capacity for implementing border security and regulating flows of people and goods are included here. Among the most urgent of these is to establish procedures for managing crises at the borders, procedures that will prevent a “system crash” in the event of another major terrorist incident. In addition, in order to ensure that the new imperative to secure borders does not obstruct legitimate flows of goods, services, and people, Mexico, the United States, and Canada must put in place a NAFTA-wide security perimeter. Such a perimeter could transform internal borders, in much the same way as the Schengen Agreement has transformed borders within much of continental Europe (Rozental 2002).

32The old paradigms for managing common borders in North America are becoming increasingly outmoded. The sheer volume of traffic, both people and goods, dictates that, even without the new pressures created by the threat of terrorism, new technologies, strategies, and ways of working together must be developed to manage this new reality (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003, 27). However, because the US government and, particularly, the Department of Homeland Security continue to emphasize security over the traditional economic interaction along the US-Mexico border, it is difficult to create a new paradigm.

33The EU’s approach to risk management is at the heart of the “smart border” accords signed by the United States with Canada and Mexico in the wake of 9/11. If properly understood and implemented, the “smart border” concept can both enhance regional security and increase the flow of people and goods across shared frontiers. If properly managed, there would be no contradiction between enhanced security and increased integration. On the contrary, economic development would be part and parcel of security (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales 2003, 28-29). The proposal for an integral security approach put forth in this chapter includes balancing security and development; achieving a thorough understanding of the economic, security, social, and cultural contexts involved; reducing structural concerns regarding border management; and improving coordination and cooperation between US and Mexican agencies involved in border management, in order to decrease the current fragmentation of authority and responsibility, overlapping jurisdictions, duplication of effort, interagency rivalries and “turf battles,” and the inconsistent, conflicting, or overburdened missions within single agencies.

34Ultimately the success of US border security depends on several factors: human intelligence; redesigning strategic programs; a more thorough understanding of the social, economic, and cultural contexts in developing countries; a clearer analysis of the different faces of terrorism; and improving the capacity of different players to anticipate attacks (a strategic and proactive approach) – in other words, anticipating the future and improving the capacity of local intelligence. This approach to security is crucial for US border-security policy. Its new policy paradigm has, to some extent, failed to reduce border violence and, particularly, transborder vulnerability. Thus it is not without some challenges, which make the human intelligence and development approaches important elements of transborder security.

35Another concern is the capacity of Mexican authorities to cope with security issues. There are concerns in a number of areas, including insufficient understanding of the challenges of border security; a limited approach to security (enforcement only); stereotypes (violation of sovereignty) to promote cooperation with US officials; lack of effective governance at the local level (corruption, high turnover of employees); the centralized government structure in which the authority for policy design and for needed resources is in Mexico City; and a shortage of intergovernmental relationships among local, state, and federal governments on Mexican border issues. Thus improved transborder cooperation in security issues is dependent to a large degree on government capacity at the local level, and on improved understanding of the issues at the local and regional levels.


36The main argument of this chapter is that the different perspectives of Mexico and the United States on border security, and on the flows of people and goods at the Mexico-US border, may reduce the level of transborder cooperation on security concerns in the long term. In this context Canada-US border cooperation on security issues provides a valuable lesson. One of the most important challenges to transborder cooperation is achieving equilibrium at the US-Canada border, which revolves mainly around the movement of transport trucks, and at the US-Mexico border, which is driven mainly by the movement of people. For this to occur the United States must understand and accept that the US-Mexico border is of the utmost strategic importance to Mexico, as it is the major facilitator of economic growth and development in the region.

37This chapter contributes to two of the four analytical lenses of the border model developed by Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly (2005): market forces and trade flows; and the policy activities of multiple levels of government on adjacent borders. The US-Mexico border is characterized by a close economic and commercial relationship that has undergone forced cooperation and, in some cases, transborder planning due to the effects of globalization. This has occurred despite the fact that the policy activities of multiple levels of government, both in Mexico and the United States, have different objectives and goals in relation to promoting economic growth in the face of global insecurity. This was particularly clear in the analysis of the overall border-security policy goals of the US Department of Homeland Security presented earlier.

38The US government’s emphasis on the priority of security along its borders has caused tremendous tensions with US border state and local governments. In this context the strategic role of local or binational local governments or key players in the private sector is essential if a balance between security and development is to be achieved along the US-Mexico border. Border-crossing delays have already had negative impacts on economic growth in the three main binational border regions of Tijuana-San Diego, Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, and Nuevo Laredo-Laredo. The long-term goal should be effective transnational, intergovernmental cooperation between Mexico and the United States that takes into account the differences on economic and border-security issues.

39The Mexican government must promote development and border-security cooperation and planning. The strategic relationship between security and development is crucial for stimulating solid economic growth in times of global insecurity. It is also necessary to involve the private sector in the development and implementation of border security and cooperation. Yet, although these measures are vital to the security and prosperity of the country, there are some concerns about this development agenda. Illegal immigration, drug trafficking, the smuggling of small arms and people, organized crime, money-laundering, corruption, and environmental degradation are transnational in nature and affect the possibility of a closer security relationship.

40The new security context since September 11, 2001, has necessitated a re-examination of existing practices and mechanisms for cross-border collaboration in law enforcement and security. For example, as noted earlier, measures must be taken to facilitate the passage of low-risk goods and people across borders. This will not only strengthen Canadian, Mexican, and US security and intelligence, immigration and refugee determination and border processing but also improve governance performance at the local level and strengthen institutional capacity to train local government officials, particularly on the Mexican side of the border. The key word is “balancing,” whether in relation to border security, trade facilitation, or border crossings, because an emphasis on security does not reduce border insecurity. This is the challenge for Mexico.

41The concept of a security perimeter for North America would not mean the elimination of the US-Mexico border or the Canada-US border, nor would it mean Canadian or Mexican adoption of US policies. Rather, it is a collaborative and integrated approach that would improve the coordination and management of existing practices and establish new measures to ensure the protection of all North American citizens by focusing security resources on higher risk areas through three integrated lines of security.



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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 9.1: Main Concerns of Mexico, Canada, and the United States
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Titre Figure 9.1: Mexican Challenges under Trilateral Cooperation
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Department of Public Administration Studies, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, Mexico

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