By Geri Smith Twenty-five Americans abducted or killed in cities along the Mexico-U.S. border in the last six months. A federal prison where Army troops were sent in to stop convicted drug traffickers from running their cartels via mobile phones from lavish cells. A disgruntled migrant smuggler who sparks a terror alert in Boston by falsely accusing eight Chinese immigrants of planning to stage attacks in the U.S.
Welcome to the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
On Jan. 26 the State Dept. issued a travel alert for U.S. citizens, warning that competition among drug cartels had sparked a wave of border violence. It also noted that local police forces and judges lack funds, training, and manpower. So this means "criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished."
U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza also sent a letter to Mexican authorities warning "the inability of local law enforcement to come to grips with rising drug warfare, kidnappings, and random street violence will have a chilling effect" on cross-border trade and tourism.
"LACK OF COORDINATION." The result was a diplomatic flap that added strain to the already troubled relationship between the two countries. Mexico's President Vicente Fox said the U.S. warning "seemed a bit scandalous." Perhaps. But Mexico's flabby law-enforcement capabilities raise the question: Can Washington rely on Mexico to make sure the border is an effective barrier for terrorists or weapons of mass destruction?
The answer is probably not. Since September 11, unprecedented U.S.-Mexico cooperation has placed ever-greater scrutiny on shipments of Mexican goods to the U.S. and on the millions of people who fly into Mexico's airports from around the world each year. But at the same time, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants have continued to slip across the porous border, as have billions of dollars worth of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.
"The Mexican government is cooperating at the very highest level, but there is a terrible lack of coordination, and the country's institutions are disorganized and immature," says Rafael Fernández de Castro, head of the international relations department at ITAM, a leading private university in Mexico City.
DELICATE BALANCE. The border controversy illustrates how free trade can be a double-edged sword. While both countries have benefited from the manufacturing efficiencies and a tripling of bilateral trade under NAFTA, officials have had to strike a delicate balance between fostering unfettered trade and safeguarding U.S. interests.
Facilitating trade flows has always been a high priority for both countries, but since 9/11 "security trumps trade" for the U.S. says Brown University political scientist Peter Andreas, an expert on border issues. "A growing fear is that the same groups, methods, and routes used to smuggle migrants and drugs across the border can now be utilized to smuggle terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."
Although no evidence indicates that either individuals who pose a danger to the U.S. or weapons of mass destruction have slipped across the border, the risk remains. The challenge, then, is to safeguard the border without paralyzing trade.
GAMMA-RAY SCANS. The 2002 U.S.-Mexico Border Partnership Agreement, known as the "Smart Border" accord, promoted express lanes for cargo of precertified companies and for frequent border crossers who have undergone security checks. Today 407 Mexican companies representing half of all export and import operations are certified, and the goal is to authorize a total of 1,300 companies accounting for 80% of trade.
Information on the cargo has been shared, in real time, with U.S. Customs since early 2004. Mexican Customs has spent around $300 million since 9/11 on technology upgrades, including gamma-ray machines that scan every railroad car that enters or leaves Mexico to make sure they're carrying authorized goods. The idea is to allow border officials to ignore routine shipments and focus on ferreting out real security risks.
"There's no border more complex or with a greater flow of goods and people than the one between the U.S. and Mexico," says Jose Guzman Montalvo, Mexico's General Administrator of Customs. "We've had excellent, close collaboration with the U.S."
STEAK AND TALK. The National Migration Institute has spent an additional $30 million upgrading its computer systems so that it can compare records on arriving airline passengers at 16 major airports with the U.S. government's "no-fly" list of suspicious individuals.
Relations between Mexico City and Washington have been strained since the Fox Administration objected to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the countries have discreetly continued cooperating on border-security issues. Representatives of some 60-odd law enforcement agencies from both sides of the border gather monthly at a steakhouse near San Diego to compare notes. This has provided help on everything from child abduction cases to the extradition of drug kingpins.
"We worry because we see what appears to be total chaos below the border and huge, gaping holes in the border itself," says David Shirk, a political scientist and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "The best way to expand our security perimeter is by promoting greater rule of law and administration of justice in Mexico, and that is a long-term project."
RUFFLED FEATHERS. Indeed, just a week after the State Dept.'s warning, Ambassador Garza visited the border city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Tex. More than 300 women have been brutally murdered there over the past decade. Investigations into the homicides have been plagued by mistakes, inefficiency, and in some cases, negligence. The cases remain unsolved, and the killers unpunished.
Garza announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development would give $5 million over four years to foster justice reform and promote training and professional exchanges for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. Local officials, he said, will decide how to carry out those reforms, but "many people in the U.S. stand in solidarity with this cause."
The gesture, no doubt, helped smooth a few official feathers in Mexico that had been ruffled by Garza's earlier comments. Certainly, it's appropriate for the U.S. to warn Americans to exercise caution when venturing across the border to buy cheap pharmaceuticals or visit honky-tonk bars. But in this new era of sensitive security cooperation, such warnings are best delivered with equal sensitivity -- and a minimum of headlines. Smith is BusinessWeek's Mexico bureau chief