President Donald Trump might not have triggered a trade war with Mexico yet, but the blame game is on in full force. On Friday he further inflamed tensions with Mexico when he wrote on Twitter that Mexico was providing “little help on the very weak border;” White House advisor Kellyanne Conway then pushed the point on TV, saying that Mexico “was not doing much to stop [drugs from] pouring over our borders.”
If true, that’s an explosive claim: Mexico dodging its job on border security would warrant a tougher line from the United States, and back up Trump’s recent rhetoric and commitment to building a wall on the border.
But it’s wrong, say former officials and experts on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. In fact, rather than offering “little help,” Mexico has significantly increased its security efforts over the past 10 years. Coordination between the two countries is near unprecedented levels, from senior levels all the way down to local law enforcement. And the tougher we get on Mexico, the more likely we are to reverse these hard-fought gains.
“The U.S.-Mexico relationship can always be stronger,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, “but it’s simply unfair, not helpful and not accurate to characterize it [as Trump and Conway did].”
The modern security relationship between the U.S. and Mexico dates back to 2007, when George W. Bush and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón signed a bilateral security agreement—the Mérida Initiative—that required Mexico to crack down on crime within its borders and the United States to address domestic drug demand. The initiative also set up direct channels for U.S. and Mexican officials to share intelligence and the United States agreed to provide help to Mexican authorities. The Mexican Navy has stationed a foreign liaison officer at the United States Northern Command since 2007; the Mexican Army has visited Northern Command facilities. Congress has supported the agreement, providing $2.6 billion in security assistance to Mexico since 2008.
The results haven’t been perfect. Violent crime in Mexico has increased significantly the past few years, while the United States faces its own opioid epidemic. But the increased security cooperation has still been impressive. “This intelligence collaboration doesn’t sound that remarkable. It’s what friends do for each other,” said Duncan Wood, the head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. “But in the U.S.-Mexico context, it’s extraordinary. If you were to tell me 10 years ago that this kind of thing would exist, I would have said you are dreaming in technicolor.”
On the Texas border, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA officer whose district contains 800 miles of the border, said that the U.S.-Mexico relationship has been consistently improving. “The number of groups that we share intelligence with has been increasing at a steady rate, so that we can deal with the problem before it even gets to our border,” he said.
In 2011, former President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto broadened the Mérida Initiative, setting law-enforcement and human-rights goals for the Mexican government. In turn, Mexico has limited the amount of dollars Mexicans can exchange or deposit each month, and created a financial crimes unit to investigate money laundering. Still, the agreement hasn’t been fully successful. Mexico continues to have human rights problems, such as the 43 students abducted and killed in Guerrero, Mexico, in 2014. But on areas of border security and cross-border collaboration, ties between the U.S. and Mexico have continued to grow stronger under the refined agreement.
Today, local law enforcement agencies on each side of the border engage in daily calls to share information and frequently conduct joint missions to crack down on human and drug trafficking. The cooperation was particularly notable over the past few years, as tens of thousands of Central American migrants have attempted to reach the United States. This flow became a crisis in the summer of 2014, when thousands of unaccompanied children came across the border, straining the U.S. immigration system. Since that surge, Mexico has played an important role in blocking Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border, turning them away before they reach the U.S.-Mexico border. In the first eight months of 2016, they had returned or deported tens of thousands of Central Americans, a practice that has faced criticism from human rights advocates who say the migrants are treated poorly. The result, nevertheless, has been a boon to the United States. At a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 per detainee, Wood estimates it save the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and importantly reduces business for smugglers and criminal gangs inside Mexico.
“The border is the last line of defense in Mexico and our first,” said Hurd. “If we can deal with this problem closer to the source, the better.”
The Mexican government is also an important partner in accepting deportees from the United States. When the Border Patrol picks up a Mexican migrant near the border, the agent can generally put them on a bus and send them right back into Mexico. It’s a procedure that angers some immigration activists but makes it very easy for U.S. immigration authorities to police the border.
“You can’t underestimate how important that is,” said John Sandweg, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “If, like a lot of other countries, it took a week or two weeks to get travel documents or authorization to return someone, that could be a huge mess for the U.S.”
Just last week, the day before Trump’s inauguration, El Chapo, the notorious drug kingpin, was extradited to the United States, a high-profile example of continued cooperation between the countries.
While this cooperation is a huge improvement in the past 10 years, experts and former officials are quick to say that it is far from optimal. The U.S. has closer security relationships with other countries, including others in Central America and South America like Colombia. “The joint, collaborative efforts are fewer and farther between than they are in some other countries,” said a former senior ICE official. The official said that often the U.S. and Mexico exchange information but that information is then acted upon independently.
“Although Colombia clearly has its sense of pride and sovereignty and nationalism, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is more complicated and has always been more complicated,” said Shifter. “There’s a longer history there and more sensitivity. The Mexicans have traditionally been much more resistant to security cooperation with the United States and having the presence of military, for example, in Mexico.”
That resistance has slowly declined since the Mérida Initiative was signed, with Mexicans becoming more willing to share information and coordinate joint exercises with the United States. Shifter and other former officials worry that Trump’s rhetoric and promise to get Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—at a cost of $8-12 billion—threatens to reverse that progress. In an executive order Wednesday, Trump laid the groundwork for the border wall and reiterated that Mexico would ultimately pay for it. In response, Thursday, Nieto cancelled next week’s planned meeting with the U.S. president, the first diplomatic crisis of Trump’s young presidency.
The two leaders spoke for an hour on the phone Friday, a chance to reduce tensions between the neighboring the countries. “The two had a productive and constructive call regarding … the need for the two nations to work together to stop drug cartels, drug trafficking and illegal guns and arms sales,” reads a read-out of the call from the White House. But Trump and Peña Nieto did not solve the impasse over who should pay for the wall. The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Experts worry that further saber-rattling by the White House will only hurt security cooperation at the local level, potentially making the U.S. less safe. Mexico, for instance, could reduce its policing efforts on its own southern border, allowing tens of thousands of migrants to make their way North. “It’s one of the areas I think they might be a lot less helpful if tensions increase,” said Shifter. Less cooperation on daily intelligence cooperation would also hurt U.S. security.
The former senior ICE official cautions that any animosity between the U.S. and Mexican leaders won’t necessarily affect security cooperation on the ground. Those professional relationships, built up over years, won’t deteriorate overnight. That Trump and Nieto can engage in such a high-profile war of words without immediately harming the security relationship is a testament to how far that relationship has come over the past 10 years. But no matter how strong it is now, the growing distrust and anger between top leadership in each country will eventually filter down to lower levels.
“There has been this growing realization, after 9/11, that the single worst thing that could happen to Mexico would be a terrorist attack on the United States that was proven to originate in Mexican territory,” said Wood. “That’s what the Canadians have known for years and years and years. The Mexicans now understand that.”
“Now, we’re getting to the point where Mexicans are beginning to question that,” he added. “And that’s a dark road we don’t want to go down.”