Crossing the Line

By James Kitfield

July 1, 1997

Through the liquid-green prism of the night vision scope, the figures appeared out of the darkness as ghostly white silhouettes, surreal and other-worldly. As they stalked single file out of a deep canyon on the southwestern border near San Diego, it was impossible for the Border Patrol agents to know the exact nature of the intrusion.

Certainly the figures could have been drug traffickers: As much of 70 percent of the U.S. cocaine supply-and increasing amounts of heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana-now enter the country across the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The stealthy silhouettes also could have been bandits. Robbers and shakedown artists so habitually prey on migrants and others in border area badlands that they have turned some stretches into modern-day versions of the Wild West.

The Border Patrol officers conducting the nighttime surveillance and intercept-a tape of which was supplied to Government Executive by the Immigration and Naturalization Service-knew that the figures in the dark were most likely illegal aliens being led across the border by one of the well-established immigrant smuggling franchises that ply the southwestern border. In an era when the immigration issue has advanced to the forefront of the American political agenda, the southwest border stands out as the busiest and most porous point of entry for illegal immigrants entering this country.

As horse-borne Border Patrol agents swooped down on the intruders, they could not be sure whether the intercept was of drug traffickers, bandits or migrants fleeing to the richest nation on earth. What they did know-what everyone who has straddled the southwestern divide comes to understand-is that to a degree that would surprise many Americans, the border between Mexico and the United States separates two vastly
different yet increasingly interdepen-
dent worlds.

A Clash of Cultures

The contrasts between these disparate cultures, as well as the ties that bind them, were on sharp display during President Clinton's visit to Mexico in May.

At a summit meeting in Mexico City, U.S. and Mexican officials signed agreements for the creation of two joint border-patrol teams to fight cross-border violence. They also pledged to expand border crossing points and share the costs of building two new sewage treatment plants along the border.

"We share more than a 2,000-mile border," Clinton said. "We share a vision of what the border should be in the 21st century-a safe, clean efficient model of prosperity and cooperation joining our people, not a barrier that divides us."

American officials concede, however, that the U.S. immigration law that went into effect at the beginning of this year caused serious strains at the summit. Clinton reportedly spent much of his time allaying fears that the law would lead to a mass roundup and deportation of Mexican immigrants.

For their part, U.S. officials were still smarting from a bruising battle with Congress earlier this year over certification of Mexico as a fully cooperating ally in the war on drugs.

With relations between the two countries at a relative high point in recent years, Mexico had been projected to easily win certification. Then in February, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebello, Mexico's top drug cop, was arrested for taking bribes from one of the country's most notorious drug traffickers. The incident once again revealed the strong undercurrent of official corruption which has bedeviled the Mexican political establishment and frustrated U.S. attempts at cross-border cooperation.

"You have to understand that the political system which has existed in Mexico since the Mexican revolution is based primarily on personal relationships and a reciprocal back-scratching way of doing business that we Americans would call corrupt, but which many Mexicans don't see as unusual," says a former senior State Department official who served in Mexico. "It's a culture ready-made for rich, ruthless drug traffickers."

Predictably, the controversy surrounding the Rebello arrest and certification set off intense wrangling within the U.S. government. Agents in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who had been warning since last fall that the level of corruption and lawlessness inspired by the Mexican drug cartels was reaching crisis proportions, argued for decertification. Others in the State and Treasury Departments contended decertification, with its severe economic sanctions, would play to Mexican nationalist sentiments, putting at risk U.S.-Mexican cooperation on a number of fronts.

Ultimately, the Clinton administration decided to certify Mexico in the drug war despite the Rebello scandal. It was an unmistakable sign of how many complex issues- including trade, immigration and that nation's nascent political reform-affect relations with Mexico. The certification decision sparked a backlash on Capital Hill, where a number of members co-sponsored legislation to override it. Ultimately, to avoid an open rift on foreign policy, Congress settled for a delicately worded "Sense of the Senate" resolution expressing concern about the problem of illegal drugs entering the country through Mexico, and calling for strengthened cooperation and specific progress in Mexico's counter-drug efforts by September 1, 1997.

A Complex Relationship

While Mexico does not generally occupy the center of attention in foreign policy circles, the certification controversy underscores the complexity and importance of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Mexican governments.

The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nearly four years ago and the U.S.-backed peso bailout of 1995 accelerated economic interdependence between the two countries. Mexico now represents the United States' third-largest trading partner, and this country is Mexico's primary source of foreign investment.

Mexico also accounts for more of the illegal immigrants in the United States than any other country. According to the INS, an estimated 2.7 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants have established residence in the United States. Mexico is also the chief smuggling route for illegal drugs, with an estimated 400 tons of cocaine, 150 tons of methamphetamines and 15 tons of heroin entering the United States across the southwest border last year alone.

"If present trends continue, we will become your second-largest trading partner in the world next year, we share what is without question the busiest border in the world, and in a couple of decades Mexican-Americans will most likely become the largest single minority in America," says Jesus Silva-Herzog, Mexico's ambassador to the United States. "Then you have the problems of illegal immigration and drugs.

"I don't think Russia, China, Japan or Israel are more important to the basic interests of the United States than Mexico," says Silva-Herzog. "And just the day before the arrest of Mr. Rebello was made public, I would have told you that the level of cooperation between our two countries had reached the highest level in history."

Indeed, it was the unwillingness to risk reversing what both Mexican and U.S. officials characterize as historic progress in the bilateral relationship that was behind the Clinton Administration's certification stance. The improvement in relations can be traced to President Clinton's push for passage of NAFTA and the politically unpopular decision to finance the peso bailout package in 1995, as well as President Ernesto Zedillo's willingness to sustain Mexico's economic
and political reforms
despite a wrenching recession.

"Actions speak louder than words, and I think Presidents Clinton and Zedillo have proven that they place a real priority on this relationship between key partners, neighbors and friends," says Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty III, former White House chief of staff and currently the President's special envoy to the Americas.

A number of senior officials stress, however, that despite recent progress in terms of political and economic reforms, Mexico still faces a very difficult and precarious transition. The peso devaluation of 1994 to 1995, for instance, led to severe financial hardships in Mexico and a recession that was three times worse than the U.S. recession of 1991, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

After the assassination of a major candidate in the last presidential election, and subsequent revelations of widespread corruption in the previous administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Zedillo is pushing for political reforms that are resisted by many in his own ruling party. This summer, Mexico will also hold critical elections for six governorships and the mayor of Mexico City. Meanwhile, increasingly powerful drug cartels are filling a power vacuum created by the dismantling of Colombia's Cali Cartel, exploiting Mexico's culture of corruption.

Economic Reforms

When the Clinton administration releases a mandated report on the impact of NAFTA this summer, it will undoubtedly paint a glowing picture. The trade figures are unambiguous. Last year, U.S. exports to both Mexico and Canada set records. At $57 billion in 1996, U.S. exports to Mexico were 37 percent above 1993 levels. The United States' share of Mexico's total imports has increased each year since NAFTA was signed, rising from 69 percent in 1993 to 76 percent through June of last year.

U.S. trade officials caution, however, that it's too early to assess NAFTA's full impact. Many provisions will be phased in over a period of up to 15 years. Because the Mexican economy is less than one twentieth the size of the U.S. economy, the impact in terms of U.S. jobs lost and gained as a result of NAFTA has also been relatively small and hard to quantify.

Ironically, the benefits of NAFTA are perhaps most obvious in the 1994 peso crisis, which brought great criticism of the trade pact. As a result of the devaluation and the 1995 recession, the trade balance shifted between the two countries, from a U.S. surplus of $1.3 billion in 1994 to a deficit of $15.4 billion in 1995.

However, rather than impose strict barriers to imports as it had after a similar 1982 peso devaluation-when 100 percent tariffs were imposed on American products-the Zedillo government continued to reduce trade barriers in 1995 as required by NAFTA. As a result, it took only 18 months for U.S. exports to Mexico to fully recover from the peso crisis, as opposed to the seven years needed after the 1982 devaluation.

A number of experts believe the peso crisis validated President Zedillo's credentials as a true reformer. "NAFTA was probably crucial in keeping the economic reforms on track, but you have to give Zedillo credit for sticking to his guns," says Sidney I. Weintraub, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Immigration Fault Line

One area where the United States has leveraged increased trade and improved relations with Mexico has been in the realm of illegal immigration. According to U.S. officials, for many years Mexico viewed illegal immigration as primarily a U.S. problem. The Mexican government could not be seen as fencing its own people in, and the Mexican economy clearly benefited from the dollars sent home by Mexican workers, legal and illegal. When U.S. officials periodically responded to the problem of illegal immigrants by virtually shutting down border crossings, relations between the two governments would predictably chill.

"With both countries now moving towards a more integrated economy under NAFTA, with increased movement of people as well as goods across the border, there's an understanding that we just can't have these standoffs anymore," says Robert L. Bach, INS executive associate commissioner for policy and planning. "All the increases in economic activity are put in jeopardy by the illegality and chaos around the border, because if trucks carrying tomatoes are found to be smuggling cocaine or illegal immigrants, eventually we're going to stop the trucks. That realization has led to more routine consultations between our governments on the immigration issue, and a number of cooperative border initiatives."

The result of that close cooperation has been a dramatic increase in border control efforts by the INS, without the acrimony that accompanied such buildups in the past. The INS has increased the size of the Border Patrol by 1,900 agents from 1993 to 1996 (to more than 5,800 in 1996), a jump of nearly 50 percent. The agency also added more than 500 new inspectors to tighten enforcement at entry points along the southwest border during 1996 alone, a 50 percent increase.

In two major operations, the INS also has massed its resources to reclaim key sections of the border. In 1994, for instance, the agency launched Operation Gatekeeper along a five-mile stretch of the border near San Diego, where more than 40 percent of all illegal immigration took place. With a nearly 100 percent increase in agents and new fencing, the INS gained a semblance of control over one of the most chaotic border areas in the world. A similar operation dubbed "Hold the Line" in El Paso shifted illegal traffic from that border town to more remote areas where Border Patrol agents have a marked advantage.

"What you previously had at those border areas was chaos. In El Paso you had illegal immigrants being chased through the halls of the local high school, and in San Diego you had masses of illegals running north up the southbound lanes of the highway," says Bach. "Now instead of getting into name-calling over the problem with the Mexican government, we're working together to establish control and improve public safety at those areas of the border so legal traffic can continue to flow. We both have a common interest in protecting people and making the economic relationship work."

The recent peso crisis also underscored how strengthening economic ties and trade can impact other areas of the bilateral relationship. Shortly after the peso devaluation, officials say, INS
apprehensions at the border increased dramatically.

"That's in keeping with a strong historical correlation: Every time the peso is devalued and the Mexican economy turns down, we have seen significant increases in illegal immigration," says Bach, noting that the flow has once again subsided to traditional levels with the stabilization of the peso and a Mexican economy whose exports are now growing by an impressive 20 percent per year. "Our long-term strategy is that economic development south of the border is a key part of the solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Mexicans have to learn that their future lies in Mexico, and not north of the border."

The Drug War

While U.S. officials are pleased with relations with Mexico on border issues, they are concerned that the Mexican government is vulnerable to increasingly powerful Mexican drug cartels. In addition to the recent arrest of Rebello, the Mexican Attorney General has fired nearly 1,500 federal agents for suspected corruption in the past two years. In the last year alone, 25 senior government officials have been assassinated and scores of police officers have been murdered.

U.S. drug agents believe Mexican drug cartels are filling a vacuum created by the demise of the leadership of Colombia's Medellin and Cali cartels in the early 1990s. Since then, Colombian drug runners have been diverting the cocaine pipeline through Mexico.

In meetings last fall, DEA and FBI agents briefing the U.S. drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, declared the situation with the Mexican drug cartels was reaching a crisis stage. Having established a high-level contact group with senior Mexican officials last year, McCaffrey passed along that assessment and his concerns to the Mexicans late last year.

"Mexico is in a state of revolutionary change from a one-party system with closed markets to a multi-party democracy with open markets and all that implies, and while this transformation is taking place they are under assault from criminal organizations a magnitude worse than the Mafia in the United States," says McCaffrey. "Right now, the Mexicans are struggling for the survival of their democracy against criminal enterprises whose level of sophistication, legal talent, funding and ability to use violence rivals that of the state. And our position is that the futures of the United States and Mexico are so completely integrated-economically, politically and culturally-that we had to work with dedicated Mexicans to solve this crime problem."

Before the arrest of Gen. Rebello, U.S. officials believed important progress had been made in cooperative counter-drug efforts. At the strong urging of the United States, for example, Mexico passed a new organized crime law to facilitate conspiracy investigations and money-laundering legislation. Mexico also extradited 13 people to the United States last year, including a major drug trafficker and, for the first time in history, two Mexican nationals. The United States, in turn, transferred 20 helicopters to the Mexican Army to aid in their drug eradication efforts.

The furor over the Rebello arrest, however, drowned out Mexican claims of progress in the drug war.

U.S. drug agents insist that Mexican cartels will continue to grow in power until the Mexican government creates a counter-drug unit that can be trusted with sensitive intelligence information and fully cooperates with drug conspiracy investigations.

"The fact that there is no one on the Mexican side of the border with whom we can share sensitive information and close the loop on these investigations is the single greatest disappointment to U.S. law enforcement," says a former senior DEA agent.

According to U.S. officials, however, just such hand-picked Mexican units were vetted and trained in the United States last year, but the Mexican government failed to provide them with the needed funding and backing. Mexican officials now say the problem will be fixed.

"We were not efficient enough in providing the vetted Mexican teams with the proper equipment and resources. That was a mistake, and we are working to fix it," says Silva-Herzog, noting that in the wake of the Rebello scandal, the new Mexican drug czar has undergone a thorough vetting process.

U.S. law enforcement officials are taking a "wait-and-see" attitude, having heard similar proclamations in the past. Most U.S. policymakers and lawmakers alike, however, are mindful that Mexico is fighting for its life against cartels made powerful by America's voracious appetite for illegal drugs. As President Clinton publicly acknowledged in Mexico City, the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet consumes roughly 50 percent of the world's supply of illegal drugs. There is also a growing consensus that President Zedillo represents the face of true reform in a Mexico undergoing revolutionary change.

"I think what you see in the attitude of myself and Mack McLarty and others in this administration is a genuine affection for President Zedillo and the Mexican senior leadership, and sympathy for their predicament," says Gen. McCaffrey. "Neither the United States nor Mexico is going to get out of this drug problem unless we commit to working together as partners."

James Kitfield is a staff correspondent for National Journal.

By James Kitfield

July 1, 1997