The government’s surge at the border

April 2, 2009

Justin Akers Chacón looks at the Obama administration's drive to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, under the cover of combating drug violence.

AMID A media frenzy over the Mexican drug cartel's violence "spilling over" the border, the federal government has launched a "border surge"--and more violence and repression of immigrants will be the inevitable result.

In the next few weeks, the Obama administration will lay the groundwork for a new stage in the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, a plan decreed by then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the final days of the Bush administration.

The military buildup is an extension of the 2008 Merida Initiative--described by the U.S. State Department as a program that "provides equipment and training in support of law enforcement operations and technical assistance to promote the long-term reform, oversight and professionalization of our partners' security agencies" in the Americas.

With this framework, Congress last year approved an initial $400 million in aid to Mexico and another $65 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The three-year plan could allocate up to $1.6 billion to Mexico and Central American and Caribbean countries for security aid to design and carry out "counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and border security measures."

Army National Guard soldiers on the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz.
Army National Guard soldiers on the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz. (Sgt. Jim Greenhill)

Thus, the Merida Initiative is called Plan Mexico by its critics--an allusion to the notorious Plan Colombia, where internal violence and displacement increased as a result of the infusions of U.S. cash that funds the Colombian military's dirty war on the left under the banner of the "war on drugs."

The U.S. is now rolling out the same strategy in Mexico, where clashes between rival drug cartels have cost more than 6,000 lives in the last year. As Laura Carlsen, writing for the Center for International Policy's Americas program put it:

Although presented as an unprecedented effort to fight burgeoning drug trafficking and violence related to organized crime in Mexico, what the U.S. calls a "Regional Security Cooperation Initiative" goes far beyond stopping the flow of illegal drugs. It fundamentally restructures the U.S.-Mexico bi-national relationship, recasts economic and social problems as security issues, and militarizes Mexican society.

The Merida Initiative also allocates $48 million for "International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement" to Mexico, and direct aid to the police and armed forces makes up over 40 percent of that spending. For its part, the Mexican government has deployed 45,000 troops across the country for drug interdiction, with the largest percentage of the total stationed in border cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

Carlsen points out that U.S. defense contractors will profit from aid that will mostly go to the most repressive parts of the Mexican state:

Most of the $132.5 million allocated to Mexican law enforcement agencies also lines the pockets of defense companies for purchase of surveillance, inspection and security equipment, and training. The Mexican Federal Police Force receives most of this funding, with Customs, Immigration and Communications receiving the remainder.

The rest of the 2008 appropriations request is comprised of $112 million in the "Rule of Law" category for the Mexican Attorney General's Office and the criminal justice system. This money is earmarked for software and training in case-tracking and centralizing data. The initiative would also give $12.9 million to the infamous Mexican Intelligence Service (CISEN) for investigations, forensics equipment, counterterrorism work, and to other agencies including the Migration Institute for establishment of a database on immigrants. The U.S. government allots $37 million of the packet to itself for administrative costs.

WHILE THE U.S. fortifies its side of the border, the Mexican government of President Felipe Calderón has already begun pouring armed forces into the region.

According to the Frontera NorteSur news agency, the Mexican government has designs for its own "border surge" through Operation Chihuahua, "a plan to deploy a total of 8,500 army troops and 2,300 federal officers in Ciudad Juárez, ultimately bringing the combined number of security personnel stationed in the violence-wracked city of 1.3 million people to about 12,000."

Calderón has also moved to give the Mexican military authority over local police departments, municipal commerce departments and the state prison in Ciudad Juárez. Despite these efforts, the drug violence continues, and investigations into corruption of police and military agencies show that many are already on the cartels' payrolls.

For instance, a study published in the Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada in February revealed that an estimated 62 percent of municipal, state, ministerial and federal agents are suspected to be linked to the cartels. The increased corruption of state agents on both sides of the border shows that the $300 billion a year illicit drug trade--and the cartelization of production and distribution created by the "war on drugs" emanating from the United States--will not be solved by more militarization.

Furthermore, human rights organizations are concerned that the militarization of Mexican politics has as much to do with curtailing social protest movements as interdicting illegal drugs.

For instance, the recently appointed police chief of Ciudad Juárez, retired Gen. David Julián Rivera Bretón, had built his reputation as a participant in the military crackdown of indigenous farmers in the state of Chiapas during the Zapatista National Liberation Army's revolt against the destabilizing effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

As Laura Carlsen has reported, local leaders of community-based organizations were some of the first targeted by the Mexican military. "In Chihuahua," she writes, "when the army moved in, it arrested social leaders on five-year-old warrants for blocking the international bridges--a common form of protest there and often used to protest NAFTA measures."

According to a February 2008 report by the International Civil Commission on Human Rights, arrest, imprisonment, physical intimidation and torture of peaceful protesters, movement leaders and even family members of activists are commonplace by Mexican law enforcement agencies and the Mexican military.

Moreover, there is a correlation between the destabilizing effects of NAFTA on Mexico's economy and the rise of the drug wars. Author and Mexico analyst Bill Weinberg explains:

The privatization of Mexico's communal peasant lands--the ejidos--was another NAFTA-related measure that helped force hundreds of thousands from their traditional rural communities. In these same years, Mexico's narco-economy exploded, the trafficking of cocaine and growing of opium and marijuana filling the vacuum left by the evaporation of the market for domestic maize and beans.

Even with the growth of drug-related crime and violence, major protests continue against the effects of NAFTA on Mexico's producing classes, such as the "Sin Mais, No Hay Pais" (Without Corn, There is No Country) campaign opposing the final dismantling of most agricultural tariffs in 2008. Yet even before these last barriers were removed, the much of Mexican agricultural production had been displaced of by U.S. imports. Thus when U.S. producers diverted much of their Mexico-bound corn to biofuel production, store shelves in Mexico were left bare--and food riots were the result.

The commercial integration between the United States and Mexico under NAFTA--has facilitated the rise of the so-called Mexico-U.S. "narco corridor."

As analysts for Stratfor have noted, the U.S. "war on drugs," by concentrating on closing supply routes through the Caribbean Basin in recent years, has failed to cut drug supply lines into the U.S. Rather, those networks have simply shifted to the border region. A Stratfor report points out:

From that point, the Mexican cartels transported them north and then handed them off to U.S. street gangs and other organizations, which handled much of the narcotics distribution inside the United States. In recent years, however, these Mexican groups have grown in power and have begun to take greater control of the entire narcotics-trafficking supply chain.

Increased commercial traffic between the two countries as a result of "free trade" has pushed most drug traffic through ports of entry on the Mexican border. Violence results primarily from cartels competing with each other for control of the trade, rather than clashes between the cartels and the state. Nevertheless, U.S. and Mexican authorities are responding as if they are at "war" with the cartels directly.

THUS, AS drug violence flows northward along the corridors of distribution and consumption, so too does increased militarization on the U.S. border, meshing with efforts toward enforcement of immigration laws.

In a January interview, the ex-Homeland Security chief, Chertoff, told the New York Times, "We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge--if I may use that word--capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with the Defense Department."

The U.S. plan calls for aircraft, armored vehicles and special teams to converge on border trouble spots, with the size of the force depending on the scale of the problem. Military forces would be called upon in the event that civilian agencies like the Border Patrol and local law enforcement were "overwhelmed."

As a continuation of Chertoff's efforts, Obama's Department of Homeland Security recently announced plans to double the size of its Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) operating along the U.S.-Mexico Border. According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), BEST "incorporates personnel from ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Coast Guard; and the U.S. Attorney's Office along with other key federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies."

Homeland Security also plans to increase ICE's "Fugitive Operations Teams" operating in the region, triple the number of intelligence analysts and quadruple the number of border liaison officers working with Mexican law enforcement officials. The department also allocates $700 million to Mexican police officials to purchase five helicopters, training and other technologies.

Under this plan, as many as 500 federal agents from different federal agencies will be redeployed from various postings around the country to the Southwest border, and about $200 million will be redirected to fund a purported crackdown on the cartels and drug trade. These forces will bolster the force of 18,000 agents that already patrol the nearly 600 miles of border wall, looking for unauthorized crossers.

As President Obama summarized the efforts during a town-hall meeting in California, "I'm going to be working with President Calderón in Mexico to figure out how we get control over the border that's become more violent because of the drug trade. We have to combine that with cracking down on employers who are exploiting undocumented workers."

The timing of the border surge coincides not only with a startling increase in drug-related violence throughout Mexico and increased resistance to the policies of neoliberalism, but also the sharp plunge of the Mexican economy into recession. In February, Mexico's Economy Minister Gerardo Ruiz Mateos announced that Mexico would shed 300,000 jobs as a result of recession and the country's dependency on U.S. markets. Concurrently, the peso has lost 25 percent of its value against the dollar since the summer of 2008, raising the cost of living for most Mexicans.

Falling oil prices will also exacerbate Mexico's already perilous situation, which accounts for 40 percent of all of the national government's spending. Already, Mexican auto production and exports have plummeted by more than 50 percent by January, and factory owners in the city of Ciudad Juárez had laid off 40,000 workers by February.

As the Mexico sinks deeper into recession, Mexican workers and peasants will be squeezed even more as the economic crisis deepens existing disparities of wealth and opportunity brought about by "free trade" policies. While the rate of unauthorized border crossings has modestly slowed due to recession and increased enforcement, they are not likely to stop, and in fact will likely increase as the drug war and recession intensify.

It will be migrant workers who will continue to be the main casualties. While four deaths were reported on the U.S. side of the border in 2008 due to the drug war "spilling over," 318 migrant border crossers perished without even a fraction of the "outrage" now mobilizing the U.S. government into action to fight the cartels. The perpetuation of the "drug war" and the strategy of the "border surge" will only increase the violence and loss of life.

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