a n a l y s i s
Mexico’s New Border Commission: A First Look
by David A. Shirk | April 2001
For years, Mexico’s northern border region was regarded in Mexico City’s corridors of power as a political and economic hinterlands of little or no significance.
In recent years, with the growing economic importance of the maquiladora industry and cross-border trade, and the ability of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) to establish a political toehold in the north, this perception has begun to change. Now, Mexico’s new government has created a commission to handle border affairs and has named ex-Baja California Governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel as its first “border czar.” What can we expect from Ruffo and his commission?
Cámara de Diputados
Commission on Population, Borders, and Migration
Phone: (5) 628-1300 ext. 1615-8022
Centro de Estudios Fronterizos
y de Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
Phone: (89) 22-49-22
Commission for Northern Border
Phone: (5) 687-0332
Phone in Tijuana: (66) 34-27-57
U.S. Department of State
Office of Mexican Affairs
Phone: (202) 647-8529
Border Information and Outreach
CRLAF Border Project
Secretariat External Relations
The 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexican border holds numerous challenges, including
rapid industrialization, a population explosion, scarce resources, and
the complexities of governing such a culturally and economically bifurcated
region. On February 8, 2001, Mexico’s interior secretary announced
the formal creation of a new government Commission for Northern Border
Affairs (Comisión para Asuntos de la Frontera Norte, CAFN) to deal
with these and other border problems. Former Baja California Governor
Ernesto Ruffo Appel has been appointed as head of the CAFN and will work
with a permanent staff of approximately fifty people with office locations
in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Monterrey.
When Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox Quesada, took office this
December, he divided his cabinet and high-level appointees into three
“branches” to reflect the policy priorities of his administration:
equitable economic growth (crecimiento con calidad), social development
(desarrollo humano), and security and order (orden y respeto). The CAFN
is included under crecimiento con calidad—reflecting the importance
that Fox assigns U.S.-Mexican relations and the border’s role in
Mexico’s economic prosperity.
The CAFN is structured to function as a working group that will take
responsibility for the creation, coordination, and promotion of initiatives
by federal, state, and municipal government agencies to foster the border
region’s further development. The commission incorporates the chiefs
and high-level functionaries from Mexico’s secretariats of the Interior;
International Relations; Treasury and Public Credit; Social Development;
Environment and Natural Resources; Energy; Agriculture, Rural Development,
Fisheries and Food; Communications and Transportation; and Tourism. The
heads of the President’s Office for Public Policy, the Office for
Attention to Migrants, and the National Water Commission will also be
integrated into the CAFN.
On the one hand, this structure reflects Fox’s strategy of administrative
organization, which involves the integration of different agencies with
multiple policy jurisdictions under the umbrella of a coordinating commissioner.
In this way, Fox hopes to promote interjurisdictional cooperation in addressing
the border region’s multiple problems. Ideally, by coordinating infrastructure
planning with programs for environmental protection, for example, this
approach could enable the commission to actually make some progress in
promoting sustainable development in the region.
On the other hand, the emphasis on the participation of multiple levels
of government is illustrative of the new administration’s focus on
building a more balanced federal system, where all three levels of government
share appropriate levels of responsibility. This is a markedly different
approach from Mexico’s traditional concentration of fiscal resources
and decisionmaking in the hands of the federal government, particularly
the executive branch. By facilitating intragovernmental cooperation across
multiple policy jurisdictions, the CAFN could provide a useful point of
contact to facilitate cross-border policy and communication. The lack
of such a trigovernmental nexus has been a cause for frustration in the
past for U.S. policymakers attempting to establish agreements with their
state and local Mexican counterparts.
The fine points of CAFN’s role and agenda have yet to be defined.
Indeed, the commission itself will be responsible for identifying and
diagnosing key problems and goals for Mexico’s northern border. Still,
there are a number of issues that are clearly within its mandate. Notably,
the commission is charged with the task of generating proposals and initiatives
Provide material and legal mechanisms to improve public services
along the border.
Ensure sustainable development and protection of the border’s
Reduce social inequalities along the border.
Promote social development in the border region.
Protect the rights and interests of Mexican border crossers.
Attend to the social and economic needs of migrants to the northern
border from the rest of the country.
The new commission’s formal mission appears to leave ample room
for interpretation with regard to its actual function and role in policymaking.
Two possible directions for the evolution of the commission include: 1)
becoming a sort of federal envoy regarding non-security-related border
affairs or 2) providing an active forum for coordinating government agencies,
private sector interests, and border communities.
With regard to the second possibility, the past decade has seen increased
activity on the U.S. side of the border by interagency government planning
groups, cross-sectoral policy forums and advisory bodies, and academic
and nonprofit think tanks directed toward resolving regional and transboundary
problems. These efforts have helped spur research, dialogue, and governmental
initiatives addressing issues of critical importance, and have been accompanied
by a general increase in communication between different federal agencies
as well as between federal, state, tribal, and local governments. Some
initiatives promoting integrated associations of governments have even
had considerable success at achieving consensus and intergovernmental
cooperation on border-related concerns. Still, though there is increasing
awareness on both sides of the border that cooperation is the key to resolving
mutual problems, until now, there has been a lack of comparable initiatives
on the Mexican side of the border.
Yet despite CAFN’s promise, a high degree of ambiguity with regard
to its role, functioning, and influence on policy also hints at a troubling
lack of substance behind the initiative. Although the CAFN makes rhetorical
appeals to such noble objectives as sustainable development and social
development, it is fairly clear that the commission itself will neither
have the decisionmaking capacity nor the resources to realize these goals
for the border on its own. Thus, unless careful steps are taken to develop
firm policy prescriptions through interagency and intergovernmental collaboration,
Ruffo and the CAFN may ultimately serve as little more than a direct link
to Mexico City on border affairs.
This, in itself, would not be entirely insignificant. As noted above,
Mexico’s political system has historically been quite centralized,
with all roads leading to Mexico City and with very few direct efforts
to deal with the pressing issues facing the peripheral provinces. The
fact that Fox has institutionalized his willingness to keep an open ear
to the problems of the border region represents a substantial change on
In the end, the direction of the new commission probably depends on
two factors: Ernesto Ruffo’s own personal style of management and
organization, and the availability of other high-level officials to intensively
participate in coordinated deliberative efforts addressing border issues.
So far, the outlook for these two factors suggests that the tendency will
be toward a more streamlined approach, with Ruffo acting as the federal
government’s border liaison rather than developing a broad-based
body for dialogue and collaboration.
Anatomy of a Border Czar
Fox’s appointment of Ernesto Ruffo Appel as head of the CAFN makes
sense. As the first opposition governor in modern Mexican history (PAN,
Baja California, 1989-1995), Ruffo is practically a household name for
many Mexicans. His 1989 electoral victory paved the way for other PAN
gains in Baja and elsewhere during the 1990s, which eventually helped
set the stage for last year’s historic presidential election. First
as mayor of the seaside city of Ensenada and later as governor, Ruffo
championed the causes of democratization, fiscal decentralization, and
Like Mexico’s new president, Ruffo was one of many businessmen
who became involved in politics in reaction to economic mismanagement
by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—particularly
in the wake of the peso devaluation and bank nationalizations of the early
1980s. Young professionals like Ruffo breathed new life into the National
Action Party (PAN), which had languished in semianonymity for forty years
under PRI hegemony. In 1986, partly thanks to PRI divisions and disaffected
voters, Ruffo ran for and won the mayorship of Ensenada, marking the PAN’s
first officially recognized victory in Baja. As mayor, Ruffo suffered
harassment by the state government, which delayed or denied fiscal transfers,
and even encouraged municipal government employees to go on strike. Ironically,
such abuses actually helped catapult him into the governorship. Ruffo’s
conflicts with the state government generated high levels of public sympathy
for the PAN mayor, which snowballed into statewide “Ruffomania”
when he launched his candidacy for governor. In 1989, with the recognition
of his victory by President Carlos Salinas, Ruffo became the first opposition
governor since the rise of the PRI.
During his six-year term as governor, Ruffo revamped public administration
and instigated major improvements in infrastructure and public services
in Baja California. Moreover, in a system where PRI governors traditionally
cowered before Mexico’s all-powerful president, Ruffo instead pressured
Mexico City for a more equitable distribution of federal revenue to state
governments. He also promoted increases in self-generated revenue for
Baja California’s state and municipal governments, partly through
anticorruption measures, administrative reforms, and improved tax collection.
Finally, within the state, Ruffo encouraged greater decentralization in
certain aspects of city planning and services, including regulation of
construction and housing developments, transit and transport, and water
and drainage services.
On the flip side of the coin, Ruffo struggled without much success with
the difficult challenges of border crime. During much of his administration,
Baja California experienced a troubling crime wave, and, like prior PRI
governments, the Ruffo administration was weakened by internal corruption.
In 1994, for example, a state attorney general stepped down amid charges
that Baja officials were protecting members of the Arellano Felix cartel.
After his term as governor, Ruffo ran for the PAN’s national leadership.
But after a defeat by the party’s more traditional, ideological wing,
he withdrew from the political arena and started offering consulting services
to investors in Baja California and throughout Mexico.
When given the opportunity to support Fox’s presidential campaign,
Ruffo suited up to become head of the Amigos de Fox organization in Baja
California. His selection to head the CAFN is a natural choice and is
one of only a few high-level political links to the PAN in Fox’s
administration. Ruffo’s experiences in government have made him well
aware of the need for binational collaboration in dealing with the border’s
many challenges. As a frequent participant in regional and binational
forums in the San Diego-Tijuana region, Ruffo has first-hand experience
collaborating on a variety of complicated issues in one of the most populous,
heavily trafficked, and economically diverse regions on the border.
Numerous Challenges Await New Border Commission
Despite inequalities and some serious quality-of-life issues, economic
growth rates, employment rates, levels of education, and average standards
of living along the border are among the highest in Mexico. Yet over the
past decade, the region’s governments, businesses, and local communities
have struggled to deal with the many problems sparked by the border’s
industrial boom. The list of challenges is extensive: steady population
increases, continuous inflows of poor and uneducated migrants from southern
and central Mexico, unbridled industrialization, unprotected natural resources,
haphazard planning, inadequate physical infrastructure, meager government
services, inadequate public and private finance mechanisms, and intractable
problems of narco-related corruption and violence.
Key challenges facing the new commission include:
Deepening development . Much of the border’s growth has come
via the maquiladora program, which allows manufacturing plants to import
and assemble foreign-made components for export. Fox and Ruffo hope to
promote actual nonimported manufacturing and high-tech industries in the
border zone while providing incentives for businesses to locate low-tech
assembly plants to less-developed areas in central and southern Mexico.
In short, their goal is to create better jobs and a better quality of
life by moving the border to a higher stage of industrial development.
This strategy is not entirely new or misdirected. Except in the northeastern
borderlands—where automotive-related production has been strong—the
electronics subsector has accounted for the most significant growth among
maquilas in recent years. Still, the shift in the makeup of the industry
hasn’t necessarily implied significant improvements in wages for
workers or higher rates of skills transfer. Indeed, industry promoters
argue that growth of the so-called second-generation maquiladoras remains
dependent largely on low wages.
Moreover, it is not clear how the new government will provide the necessary
supporting infrastructure and educated work force to meet its increased
expectations. It would take years to match the potential of Guadalajara—Mexico’s
“Silicon Valley”—which benefits from a highly educated
population, several universities and technological institutes, and a critical
mass of established high-tech industries. At best, the CAFN will serve
as a promoter for the border region but will not have the resources or
decisionmaking authority to achieve larger development-related goals.
The big question, of course, is how well CAFN will actually manage balancing
development objectives with sustainability goals.
Managing population growth . How can you provide quality water,
housing, sewage treatment, and education on a shoestring budget for a
population that grows at a rate of over 5% a year? For most Mexican state
and local governments along the border, the answer is simple: you can’t.
Though official population estimates are highly unreliable due to constant
flows of migration from poorer regions of Mexico, there is universal agreement
that the metropolitan centers along the border are experiencing a population
explosion. The region’s rapid demographic growth puts a tremendous
strain on available resources, infrastructure, and public services. Access
to decent, affordable housing is a critical problem, given the lack of
credit and financing mechanisms and the difficulty of enforcing zoning
regulations. Meanwhile, providing other essential services—like sewage
and waste disposal, education, and electric power—remains extremely
problematic, especially in the ever-expanding shantytowns that are home
to much of the border’s low-paid work force.
Fox has proposed expanding the role of NAFTA institutions—particularly
the North American Development Bank (NADB), created to assist local governments
with environmental infrastructure projects—to address these issues,
and recently the bank decided to begin looking at some of these new priority
areas. However, given the inadequate credit worthiness and scant loan
seeking experience of local and regional public entities in Mexico, the
NADB has had difficulty finding eligible projects—a problem it’s
not certain the expanded mandate will resolve.
The CAFN will have its hands full as it attempts to coordinate multiple
agencies and different levels of government in dealing with growth-related
problems. At the very least, Ruffo and his commission might help restructure
public financing in Mexico, so that local governments can better meet
Developing and protecting scarce resources . Economic interdependence
along the border has led to shared problems regarding environmental management
and sustainability. Growth patterns of low-density sprawl on both sides
of the line contribute to a heavy dependence on automobile transportation,
which complicates environmental problems and quality-of-life issues such
as air quality and traffic congestion. The Mexican side suffers from additional
problems, such as weak regulation of hazardous industrial waste, inadequate
treatment of sewage waste, and the proliferation of unplanned communities.
The border region also faces severe problems of water supply and quality,
both of which are sure to worsen as communities in the southwestern U.S.
scramble to redirect and control flows of the precious liquid to meet
their own needs.
Mexico’s new border commission has an explicit mission to promote
sustainable development to better manage the increasing human impact on
the region’s environment. Thus, the CAFN may help to address environmental
problems by acting preemptively to foster greater coordination in planning
the region’s transportation infrastructure, land use, energy use,
water treatment, and air quality control. Still, the commission’s
mission seems to be primarily an economic one, and references to environmental
protection may prove to be mere rhetoric. As a first step, the CAFN could
demonstrate a credible commitment to its green agenda by bringing interested
environmental groups on both sides of the border to the table to foster
policy recommendations and deliberation.
Reducing social inequality . The benefits of economic growth in
Mexico’s borderlands have failed to materialize for many of the region’s
inhabitants. According to Fox, this is due in part to the continual flows
of migrants from the poorest regions of the country who put a drag on
wages and living conditions in northern states and prevent them from reaching
their potential. The president has pledged that the CAFN will work to
promote equitable growth in the border region, saying that Mexico’s
North should be a model, not a magnet, for the rest of the country. Though
low wages and poor living conditions may, unfortunately, be precisely
the factors that facilitate border economic growth rates, Fox’s stated
concern for equity issues speaks to one of the most important and difficult
challenges of embracing the global economy.
The CAFN’s efforts could be complemented by Fox’s Program
for Regional Development (Programa de Desarrollo Regional), which he says
will invest in Mexico’s underdeveloped center, south, and southeast
to provide the economic development necessary to reduce the northbound
migration of people in search of better opportunities. Nonetheless, this
goal clearly presents one of the most difficult hurdles for the border
region and the new commission.
Protecting migrants on both sides of the border. The number of Mexicans
and Mexican-Americans in the United States is estimated at over 20 million
persons, and represents about two-thirds of the U.S. latino population.
An estimated 1.5 million Mexicans are arrested annually for attempting
to cross the border without documentation. Hundreds die in the process,
as they are pushed to ever-greater extremes to avoid capture by the Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS) or harassment by vigilante groups, and
as they place their lives in the hands of unscrupulous human smugglers.
Such migrants make important contributions to the Mexican economy by
sending billions of dollars each year back to their families. Fox himself
is politically indebted to Mexicans abroad, many of whom supported his
presidential campaign by contributing money, by urging relatives back
home to vote for him, or by travelling back to Mexico to vote for him
in the July 2000 elections.
Eventually, Fox hopes to stem the exodus to the U.S. by providing all
Mexicans with greater employment opportunities, better wages, and a higher
quality of life in Mexico. Meanwhile, Fox has said that the new commission
will work actively to advocate for the rights of Mexicans travelling to
and working in the United States. What the CAFN can do that will be different
from past efforts, however, remains to be seen.
Working with northern neighbors . The border region faces problems
that cross both political and jurisdictional boundaries with ease, and
that affect numerous policy domains—such as the environment, transportation
infrastructure, health services, and the economy. Collaboration with U.S.
officials will be critical to addressing many of the new commission’s
challenges. The recent meeting between presidents Fox and Bush seemed
to set a positive tone for future collaboration. Despite Bush’s simultaneous
use of big-stick diplomacy against Iraq, the two nations signaled a willingness
to negotiate as equal partners on issues of shared strategic interest,
such as addressing migration, establishing a cross-border energy market,
bolstering antinarcotics efforts, and expanding the terms of trade under
NAFTA. For the CAFN, the challenge will be to foster collaborations at
the regional and local level that move beyond mere good faith efforts,
as admirable as these are, and aim at real, measurable results.
Facilitating cross-border synergy . The artificial barriers created
by the U.S.-Mexico border region seem anachronistic in today’s globalized
age. Government officials and agencies on both sides of the border are
limited in the extent to which they can cooperate with their neighbors
to remove those impediments because of traditionally centralized frameworks
for decisionmaking. For example, federal control of customs and immigration
means that local communities are not empowered to reduce border-related
inefficiencies that prevent stronger economic linkages between U.S. and
Mexican communities. Though the border region could ultimately benefit
from the creation of a fully empowered, joint decisionmaking body for
handling such problems, the creation of the CAFN may help to provide some
coordination of policy on the Mexican side. The CAFN may thus serve as
a useful point of contact for the multiple agencies and governmental associations
in U.S. border states.
Crime is the most obvious policy area omitted from the CAFN’s ample
agenda. In late December, the newly inaugurated President Fox visited
key northern states and outlined his priorities for the region, with particular
emphasis on security and crime prevention. Actually, recent opinion polls
indicate that crime and violence are less of a concern along the border
than in other parts of Mexico (particularly in the large metropolitan
areas of Mexico City and Guadalajara). Still, Fox’s emphasis on security
plays well in the region, which in recent years has been plagued by the
murders and disappearances of women in Ciudad Juárez and has experienced
extreme but targeted acts of violence related to migrant smuggling and
narcotrafficking. Ostensibly, keeping intractable problems such as narcocorruption
and violence off the CAFN’s plate should enable the commission to
focus on planning for economic prosperity.
The real key to the CAFN’s success will lie in the role it takes
in promoting deliberation, collaboration, and concerted efforts to resolve
problems affecting both sides of the border. At the very least, the formation
of the new commission acknowledges the importance of Mexico’s industrialized
North, and its ties to the United States. Ruffo and the CAFN can potentially
meet the federal government’s goal of strengthening the border economy
while providing border governments greater access to policymaking in Mexico
City. One hopes that, over time, the new commission will evolve into a
forum for dialogue and a unifying force across different policy jurisdictions,
multiple levels of government, diverse business interests, and heterogeneous
David A. Shirk teaches in the Departamento Académico de
Ciencia Política at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo
de México (ITAM) in Mexico City. He has written extensively about
politics, economy, and public policy in Mexico and the border region,
and has analyzed the organizational development of the National Action
Party (PAN). Shirk has authored chapters on the PAN in edited volumes
by Wayne Cornelius (1999), Kevin Middlebrook (forthcoming), and Victor
Espinoza (forthcoming) and has also produced briefing papers on border
affairs for the San Diego Dialogue . He holds a Ph.D. in political
science from the University of California, San Diego.
Published by the Interhemispheric Resource Center’s
Americas Program . All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: “Mexico’s New Border
Commission: A First Look,” Americas Program Analysis (Silver City,
NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, April 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/briefs/2001/bl77.html