By Samuel Logan
For over two months the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has secretly been working with a unit of the Mexican Federal Police on the Sonora-Arizona border, in the initial phase of an unprecedented binational cooperation agreement and a trial-by-fire designed to boost political support for the idea.
On 18 February, US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna signed a historical cooperation agreement, outlining daily information-sharing protocols, priority synchronization and joint strategic planning. Heavy with rhetoric and criticism, the new policy comes at a time when both countries would benefit from gaining traction on border security issues.
Security cooperation between the US and Mexico has historically been a strained effort. But if supporters of this latest initiative are correct, then what Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan has called an enforcement "sea change" may gain enough traction at the operational level to see a breakthrough in bilateral law enforcement strategic cooperation.
Still, a number of questions remain.
Corruption ranks as the top criticism. Countless Mexican Federal Police operatives have been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for information, and there is concern that US Border Patrol agents on a joint mission with their Mexican counterparts might find themselves facilitating rather than hindering organized crime. The CBP directors in charge of this initiative, however, counter that the Mexican officers working on this program have been thoroughly vetted with background checks.
On the Mexican side of the border, unease focuses on the personal security of the officers working with the CBP. Invariably, their names and photos will circulate among sicarios, or hit men. This risk is part of the job, but to what extent will organized crime go to single out these men for assassination?
Targeted assassinations depend on the program's effectiveness. With only two months of operational history, too little time has passed to discern any measurable result, but the program's current focus, the Arizona-Sonora border, is a busy area for human smugglers and marijuana runners. The Nogales border crossing likely sees millions of dollars of illegal product trafficked north every week. If the black market bottom line runs red, attacks on law-enforcement will likely follow.
There seems to be a sense of urgency in both presidential administrations. US President Barack Obama has one eye on his dropping popularity and the other on mid-term legislative elections. Immigration ranked high on Obama's promise list entering office, and so far he has not been able to spend a cent of political currency on sparking this debate.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon faces elections in several states this summer, which could further weaken his administration. More importantly, Calderon has only three years left in office. Calderon is a lame duck president, but if he cannot bring to heel rampant violence in his country his political party will likely lose the next presidential election [July 1, 2012] and Mexico's organized criminal organizations will be declared the victors, forever tarnishing his legacy.
Some success from this border initiative would give both leaders measurable achievement in a political arena marked by more bloody headlines than success stories. Building on any success could open doors for more sensitive discussions, such as immigration or adding more US support for training and cooperative missions inside Mexico.
Perhaps the best aspect of this initiative is the recognition that the two countries must work together if they are to make any significant steps towards border security.
Janet Napolitano told a Congressional Committee on 24 February that border security is a matter of national security. That was a first. This bilateral initiative is a demonstrable step towards putting these words into action. In coming months, observers on both sides of the border will see if this ambitious plan makes history or comes and goes as just another quickly forgotten headline about border security.