Online Extra: Quiet Teamwork on Border Safety

Mexico's Gerónimo Gutiérrez talks about the underestimated Security & Prosperity Partnership of North America

Gerónimo Gutiérrez, Mexico's Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs for North America, is the country's chief liaison with the U.S. for coordinating actions to make the 2,000-mile shared border more secure without interrupting bilateral trade. He spoke on July 15 with BusinessWeek Mexico Bureau Chief Geri Smith. Following are excerpts from their conversation:

Q: The leaders of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico met June 27 in Ottawa to discuss ways to make their shared borders more secure. What can you say about the initiatives they have come up with?


The Security & Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) has been a bit underestimated in its importance. It has not caught people's attention. I think if people really take a look at the actions and the different programs that have been agreed upon and some that have been implemented, they'll see it's a program on the right track.

[We're creating] a North American "security space," and it has three axes: First is protecting North America from any foreign or external threat from traveler security, cargo security, and biosecurity. Second, protecting against any threat from within North America. And finally, making the flow of "low-risk" travelers and cargo across the borders of North America more efficient. The SPP is an initiative that for some might be not enough, and for others, might be too much. So it's probably on the right track.

Q: What has Mexico done to improve border security since 9/11?


We've established communication between relevant government agencies on both sides to exchange intelligence and information regarding travelers coming into North America. That did not occur before September, 2001. We are exchanging passenger lists. And there's a no-fly list in the U.S., so our security agencies are able to consult against that no-fly list. At the same time we have provided an opportunity for [U.S.] air marshals to travel on specific flights whenever there is a specific concern with a flight.

Q: What other kinds of cooperation are there?


There's also a lot of exchange of information and intelligence between Homeland Security and our security agencies here in Mexico regarding trafficking in persons and human smuggling that allows us to pinpoint and dismantle bands, especially those that might work with what we call "special interest personalities" -- certain countries that we both pay particular attention to, for example, with regard to granting visas.

Q: What has Mexico done specifically to crack down on "polleros," or migrant smugglers?


The Mexican government has always tried to stop trafficking, but we really started a very strong program in 2003. We have dismantled many of those organizations. [Soon we will] have a permanent presence of the Federal Preventive Police [PFP] in six points of Sonora state...where we know that smugglers are operating.

Q: Did you do that at Washington's request?


It's also in Mexico's interest to have a secure border and to have a secure region with the U.S. We take very seriously the shared concern about improving security on the border.

Q: How concerned are you that the violence in a number of Mexican border cities could affect efforts to keep that region secure against terrorism?


We should separate the different security threats that we currently have on the border. One has to do with the issue of trafficking of persons. Second, what has been happening especially in Tamaulipas state [where Nuevo Laredo is located] and other border areas is really more related to drug-trafficking issues.

This administration has taken a firm stance against drug trafficking and has detained a fair number of [cartel] leaders. The organizations have metastasized and are fighting each other, and at the same time they are reacting to the commitment of this administration to dismantle them. That is what you're seeing in Nuevo Laredo. It's a different kind of security threat.

Q: But given the apparent lack of law enforcement on the Mexican side, isn't it understandable that some would think the government perhaps isn't a reliable partner in this joint border-security initiative?


It's a natural question for people to ask. I would say we definitely are [reliable]. We have an unprecedented level of cooperation [with the U.S.] in security affairs and also in law-enforcement affairs. It is based on trust and also on shared objectives, and we're respectful of each other's sensitivities.

Q: Is the border significantly more secure than before 9/11?


My impression is that we have a much more secure [border] now. But there is much more attention [being paid] to what is happening on the border now than before 9/11, so when people in the U.S. talk about porous borders and the possibility that a threat to the U.S. could come through Mexico, it should be taken into account that we are doing much more than we were doing before.

There is no possibility of establishing a strategy that is 100% foolproof. Security is about identifying risks, assigning them probabilities, and acting to reduce those probabilities, and that is precisely what we're doing.

Q: Does Mexico have enough financial resources to embark on all of the joint programs agreed upon with the U.S. and Canada?


Many things don't necessarily involve a lot of resources because you're not talking about [a lot of new] infrastructure. They mostly involve consultations, common policies, and common regulations. For example, to have a common response to emergencies at the border, you just need to make sure all the relevant agencies have an established protocol.

Q: There's considerable concern in Washington that your southern border with Guatemala doesn't seem to be very well controlled.


We are working on it with the resources we have available. Mexico every year deports over 200,000 people at our southern border. We take very seriously any possible threat, first of all to Mexico, and also to our neighbor the U.S. And we are doing everything we can to minimize the probability [of terrorists slipping through].

Q: How does the Mexican government view the idea of creating a special border pass with biometric information to expedite crossings for frequent travelers?


There are [business] people in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. who travel around North America twice a week. It makes all the sense in the world to facilitate the flow of frequent travelers. It has to do with security, but also with competitiveness. With the SPP we're striking an appropriate balance between security concerns and facilitating the flow of goods and people in a way that will give North America an edge to remain competitive.

Q: NAFTA was supposed to eliminate borders, in a way.


The whole concept of a border is changing. When we started NAFTA, people were talking about erasing borders from a trade perspective. The 21st century border will probably be something that involves having customs operations performed at the place of production and having migratory [procedures] done before people actually get to the geographical border. That's what everybody is going to be doing.

And if North America gets a chance to do it quickly, that will give us a competitive advantage that will help us keep employment in the region. Security and trade are complementary, so we need to balance them out in a way that becomes efficient.

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