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t i v e r e p o r t
Deepening U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation
by Kent Paterson | November 1, 2001
Contrary to complaints from Beltway pundits regarding Mexico”s "tepid" response to the September 11 attacks in the United States, the United States” southern neighbor has quickly jumped on board U.S. President George W. Bush”s anti-terror bandwagon. Though Mexico has declined to participate in overseas actions, it has taken a number of steps to beef up security on the home front and on its borders. But what effect will spreading the United States” new, post 9-11 U.S. security consciousness south of the
border have on human rights and rule of law in Mexico?
Besides pledging unconditional political support for its northern neighbor
in the wake of the September attacks, Mexico sent police and soldiers
to fan out across the country to secure strategic facilities, public transportation
centers, and border crossing points. In Ciudad Juárez, sub-machine
gun toting officers from the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) have even
patrolled the city”s bus station. On the U.S.-Mexico dividing line, inspections
of persons entering Mexico have doubled. And Mexico is paying more attention
to its southern border than ever before, including deploying military
personnel in support of immigration officials there.
The trend was well in place prior to the September attacks, having picked
up speed after the signing of 1994″s North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) and, more recently, being reinforced as part of Mexican President
Vicente Fox”s pitch to relax migration controls between the two countries.
While the official binational focus prior to September 11 was on drug
trafficking and organized crime, an infrastructure was quietly being built
that permits easily shifting the mutual security priority toward fighting
In a Tijuana speech in early October, Fox outlined the legal mechanisms
in place to accomplish this goal. "We consider the struggle against
terrorism to be part of the commitment of Mexico with Canada and the United
States to build within the framework of the North American Free Trade
Agreement a shared space of development, well-being and integral security,"
Playing a central role in the massive and largely unpublicized expansion
of joint U.S.-Mexico law enforcement initiatives is the Mexico-U.S. Plenary
Group on Law Enforcement, created in 1995. Coordinated on the U.S. side
by the Department of Justice, at least 19 federal Mexican and U.S. agencies
now participate in regular gatherings of the group. Joint activities include
the training of Mexican police, intelligence sharing, and forming cross-border
task forces to fight money laundering and other crimes. Meeting frequently
in 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Mexican counterpart
Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha have personalized this new commitment
to a joint law enforcement strategy.
Another outcome of the deepened crossborder security relationship: In
a cooperative spirit previously unimaginable, fugitives from both countries
are now regularly whisked back home for prosecution.
Exporting U.S. Policing Strategies
Sensitive to criticisms that Mexican police are corrupt and inefficient,
high-level Mexican politicians from across the political spectrum are
supporting foreign police training of their own cops in the name of professionalization.
In addition to North Americans, French, Israeli and Cuban nationals are
reported to be instructing Mexican police at all levels.
With a long history in Mexico, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) is a key player training Mexican police forces. One FBI trainer
interviewed for this story, Special Agent Raul G. Salinas, estimates that
he has trained about 4,000 Mexican police from federal, state and local
forces in the last two years alone. A typical course given by Salinas
might cover topics like advanced anti-kidnapping and interrogation techniques.
Besides the in-country training offered by bureau personnel like Salinas,
Mexican officers and prosecutors attend FBI courses in the United States
under the auspices of the Mexican American Law Enforcement Training Program.
Mexico is but one country where the FBI”s international presence expanded
dramatically in recent years. In 1998 testimony to the U.S. Congress,
then-FBI Director Louis Freeh estimated that the agency had trained 13,000
foreign law enforcement personnel from more than 60 countries during the
preceding three years.
Some Mexican sources report that the FBI has gone beyond mere training
and become directly involved in kidnap investigations. Insisting that
his agency is respectful of Mexico”s sovereignty, Salinas declined to
comment on the reports. In earlier decades, FBI agents stationed in Mexico
were frontline soldiers in J. Edgar Hoover”s anticommunist crusade.
For now, at least, the FBI”s major influence in Mexican affairs appears
to be inspirational. As part of a plan by Mexico”s Attorney General of
the Republic (PGR) to reign in the corruption-tainted Federal Judicial
Police (PJF) and restructure Mexican law enforcement, Fox officiated over
the first graduating class this fall of the new Federal Agency of Investigation
(AFI), an institution largely regarded as being modeled upon the FBI.
According to Mexico”s Proceso magazine, the 3,500-strong AFI receives
training from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the French
National Police. Among the skills learned by the first 543 AFI graduates
were firearms handling, explosives, and urban combat.
Historically viewed in a negative light in Mexico, the United States
Border Patrol is another U.S. agency that is at the forefront of the training
boom. Launched in 1998, the Border Safety Initiative between Mexico and
the United States was set up to warn illegal immigrants of the hazards
of crossing a treacherous border. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft
recently announced that 400 Mexican officers were trained last year by
the Border Patrol”s Search, Trauma, and Rescue Teams (BORSTAR) as part
of the initiative. This year, Border Patrol teachers in El Paso expanded
the training program when they instructed Ciudad Juárez police,
Chihuahua State Judicial Police and other authorities in water rescue
techniques to save migrants who sometimes get trapped in deadly waterways.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Border Patrol agents this year trained
officers from the Mexican PFP in highway checkpoint and border control.
According to El Paso Sector Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier, his
agency”s relationship with Mexican police goes beyond emergency rescue
work and encompasses criminal investigations involving drug and immigrant
smuggling. Mosier says the Border Patrol”s Mexican Liaison Unit works
directly with its Mexican counterparts. "We”ve gotten very good cooperation
on a local level in working with Mexican police in trying to stop some
of the international criminal activity along the border, and again with
the emphasis on border safety," says Mosier. "We hope the sky
is the limit. We feel like Mexico is very receptive to the idea of working
with us as we have seen here locally, and we think that will continue
Apart from the federal U.S.-Mexico police programs, state and local agencies
are getting in on the act. For instance, the Arizona Highway Patrol recently
trained Sonora state police, while the El Paso Police Department advised
officers from Casas Grandes, Chihuahua.
Because no reporting to Capitol Hill lawmakers is currently required
of the training programs, it”s difficult to total how much U.S. tax money
has been spent on training Mexican police forces. Some funding, however,
is being drawn from the Department of State and the Department of Justice.
Eric Olson, senior Mexico program associate with the non-profit Washington
Office on Latin America, says the love affair between Mexican and U.S.
cops is a dramatic departure from just two years ago, when the Mexican
Congress was in a nationalistic uproar over FBI agents digging up a suspected
narco-grave in Ciudad Juárez. Despite the historic change, few
in the U.S. Congress really know the details of the programs.
"It”s hard to know who and what they best online casino are training for and under
what program," says Olson, "They all have one piece of the pie
and are touching part of the elephant."
The Leahy Law
A thorny issue tied to the U.S. police training is the Leahy Amendment
of the Foreign Operations Act, which bars U.S. assistance to security
forces that engage in human rights violations and don”t punish the responsible
Since virtually all of the Mexican agencies presently being trained by
U.S. law enforcement authorities have long records of human rights violations,
including torture and murder, some question whether the Leahy Law is being
enforced south of the border.
For instance, activists say that human rights complaints involving the
FBI-trained Guerrero State Judicial Police (PJE) could fill volumes. Although
the Guerrero State Attorney General”s Office publicly stated that it sacked
200 agents last year for human rights violations and corruption, statistics
compiled just in the Acapulco area during the first six months of 2001
by the official Guerrero State Human Rights Commission (CODDEHUM) show
that citizen complaints against the PJE accounted for 29% of grievances.
CODDEHUM officials say that in spite of some improvements, the PJE still
engages in a systematic pattern of human rights violations including torture,
illegal searches and detentions and harassment of suspects” relatives.
And like their counterparts elsewhere, members of the Guerrero PJE have
been implicated in stolen car and kidnap-for-profit rings, not to mention
drug trafficking, raising questions regarding how skills acquired via
U.S. police training are being put to use.
The Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, one of Mexico”s
leading independent human rights organizations, characterizes the police
situation in Guerrero and neighboring Morelos state as "being the
tip of the iceberg" of a national scandal. Indeed, throughout 2001,
border communities like Ciudad Juárez have been plagued by constant
administrative and political turmoil over police linked to illegal drugs,
assassinations, torture and more. A mountain of troubles surround Mexico”s
police in spite of human rights training at police academies, anti-corruption
campaigns and stricter recruiting requirements phased in over the years.
In Ciudad Juárez, where local police collaborate with the U.S.
Border Patrol, recurring allegations of human rights abuses by officers
make frequent headlines. A binational citizen”s initiative sponsored by
the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (ILEMP) of the American
Friends Service Committee and the Paso del Norte Regional Citizens” Council
documented 16 alleged violations of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights by Juárez city police mainly during a period from October
to December 2000.
Notwithstanding the preponderance of complaints against Mexican police,
the U.S. Department of State annually issues a Mexico country report on
human rights that ritually proclaims the Mexican government as generally
being in line with international standards. Yet these same reports consist
of multiple pages recounting rampage after rampage by police.
Macedo de la Concha peppers his speeches with human rights rhetoric,
but following this year”s murder of prominent human rights attorney Digna
Ochoa and the subsequent slew of death threats against other well-known
leaders of Mexico”s human rights movement, non-governmental organizations
now worry that the clock is being turned back to the time when a dirty
war was waged against dissenters with absolute impunity.
And although the Mexican government”s own National Human Rights Commission
recently held government security forces responsible for a large share
of forced disappearances during 1970s counterinsurgency operations, no
member of either the police or military ever has been charged with a crime
stemming from those actions.
Quite arguably, few if any Mexican police units would be eligible for
training under a strict interpretation of the Leahy Amendment. But Mexico,
like Colombia, sidesteps the question by selecting for training only individuals
from tainted units instead of having entire units trained.
Even with such loopholes, some consider the Leahy Amendment too burdensome.
One of the trial balloons to float from the Bush White House after September
11 was a proposal to scrap the Leahy Amendment together with eliminating
prohibitions on CIA involvement in overseas assassinations. While Langley
has since been turned loose, the Leahy Amendment survived-at least for
another year-when it was included in the Foreign Operations Act for Fiscal
Tom Hansen, who was once deported from Mexico for his support of indigenous
communities in Chiapas and who now coordinates the nonprofit Mexico Solidarity
Network, contends that the Leahy Amendment is simply not enforced in Mexico.
"Our argument is that if the law is on the books in the U.S., our
embassy should follow the law," says Hansen.
To further compliance with the Leahy Amendment, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico
City maintains a database of alleged human rights violators used to weed
out nefarious individuals before they are trained. Additionally, the specific
U.S. agency involved in the training is supposed to run separate criminal
background checks on potential trainees in order to make sure they don”t
have records. The question was posed to the FBI trainer Salinas: "How
do you know you are training the right people?" His students, replies
Salinas, are carefully selected, given strong human rights and anti-corruption
messages and taught the importance of "wearing a badge." Nevertheless,
admits Salinas, "one never knows how someone is going to turn out."
Information entered into the embassy database reportedly comes from Mexican
media and human rights organizations. However, several leading human rights
advocates in Mexico from both governmental and non-governmental organizations,
including representatives from the All Rights for All National Human Rights
Network, the Guerrero State Human Rights Commission, and the Guerrero
State Congress Human Rights Commission stated in separate interviews conducted
in mid-2001 that they never had been personally approached by the embassy
for input or their views on the current human rights situation.
Joy Olson, the director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington-based
think tank, says she grew concerned that the embassy database was incomplete
soon after it was created in 1999. Says Olson, "I don”t think they
were collecting the sort of information that needs to be in the data base."
Olson and her colleagues submitted a list of names of known human rights
violators to the embassy. According to one U.S. State Department source,
at least two potential trainees were turned down this year by the embassy
after a red flag went up.
Michael Chamberlin, an internationally-recognized Mexican activist who
has coordinated the All Rights for All National Human Rights Network,
Mexico”s largest grouping of non-governmental human rights organizations,
criticizes the U.S. Congress for dropping the ball when it comes to security
training and human rights. Recalling the state of Oaxaca, where Chamberlin
claims U.S.-trained special Mexican army units "devastated"
indigenous communities during counterinsurgency campaigns against the
Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) in the 1990s, the human rights advocate
fears similar violations will occur in the wake of stepped-up U.S. police
training. Characterizing the U.S. Congress as "schizophrenic,"
Chamberlin says lawmakers north of the border have pressed Mexico to respect
human rights while at the same time approving more military aid and passing
laws like Leahy that "don”t have a real effect."
The Militarization of Policing
Consciously or not, U.S. support for current Mexican law enforcement
strategies bolsters the ongoing militarization of police work south of
the border, a trend which picked up speed after Mexico”s 1995 approval
of a new national security law. The most visible military representative
in Mexican law enforcement is Attorney General Macedo de la Concha, but
there are numerous others scattered across the nation. Retired military
officers were recently appointed to head state police forces in Chihuahua
and Guerrero, as well as the municipal police of Ciudad Juárez.
Some activists say the PFP could be viewed as a military unit disguised
as police. Formed in late 1998, the PFP was initially made up of several
thousand military and security personnel borrowed from the Mexican Armed
Forces and CISEN, Mexico”s version of the CIA.
Once praised by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the PFP-like today”s
new AFI-was officially introduced as an elite strike force targeted at
drug lords, kidnappers and other villains of the underworld. Accordingly,
the PFP received U.S. training with financial support from the U.S. State
Department and other agencies. But the agency soon presented another face,
making its mark by arresting and allegedly torturing suspected guerrilla
leaders, breaking the student occupation of the national university in
Mexico City, invading indigenous communities in Chiapas, and arresting
anti-globalization demonstrators in Cancun.
Under the Fox administration, the PFP”s political profile has been lowered
and supervision for the force was transferred from the historically political
Interior Ministry to the new Ministry of Public Security. Francisco Barrio,
an ex-Chihuahua governor who is currently Fox”s anti-corruption czar,
recently has been investigating whether former directors of the controversial
police force misspent public money on luxury jets, helicopters, and informants.
On a daily basis, Mexican police work is now militarized through the
posting of soldiers at highway checkpoints. The troops board and search
vehicles, sometimes demanding that passengers produce identification.
Likewise, the Mexican Army participates in the Mixed Operation Bases (BOMS)
program. BOMs unite soldiers, judicial police and other forces in one
single anti-crime fighting unit. Even before September 11, heavily armed
Mexican soldiers in armored vehicles sporadically patrolled main thoroughfares
in Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and other cities.
Tacit U.S. support for such initiatives flies in the face of a 1998 recommendation
from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization
of American States that urges Mexican soldiers to return to the barracks.
But after September 11, soldiers are likely to be more utilized in police
work-on both sides of the border.
North American Security Relations at the Crossroads?
As Washington overhauls its own law enforcement apparatus to fight the
"war against terrorism," it remains to be seen how far Mexico
City will go with the new war and to what degree the two governments will
redefine and restructure their police training and cooperation programs
to fit the U.S. policy. Certainly, while the Fox administration appears
willing to deepen North American security collaboration and is struggling
to demonstrate staunch support for the Bush administration”s anti-terrorism
campaign, the Mexican public is not as enthusiastic.
Another important question is whether the existing infrastructure, and
the skills transmitted by U.S. police trainers, will be turned against
armed Mexican insurgent groups. Will groups like the EZLN or the EPR be
painted with the terrorism brush of Washington? Although none of the existing
insurgent groups are on the U.S. State Department”s terrorist list, Washington
has signaled its willingness in the past to help combat the EPR. Other
developments could well forebode the extension of the war against terrorism
In Mexico, meanwhile, some high-ranking politicians and generals are
taking pains to clearly distinguish between insurgency and terrorism,
both at home and abroad. Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox”s national security
adviser, is quite comfortable backing the Bush administration when it
comes to Al-Qaeda, but departs from Washington”s analysis of the Colombian
conflict. For his part, former Mexico City police chief and current Public
Security Minister Alejandro Gertz Manero has said that the gravest threat
to Mexico”s internal security continues to be "common" crime,
not terrorism. So despite the current unprecedented collaboration between
U.S. and Mexican police, the current focus of U.S. foreign policy might
well be sowing the seeds for a future tension between Washington and Mexico
City over security priorities.
Nonetheless, for the moment official Mexico seems intent on reactivating
migration talks with the United States by folding the discussion into
negotiations on shared security strategies. In early October, Aguilar
said that Mexico was working towards "interdependent security"
with its NAFTA partners, including more coordinated customs procedures
and increased intelligence gathering and sharing. Mexico also plans to
create a national criminal database by next year, install a national high-tech
passport verification system and identity database like that employed
in the United States, and raise airport security measures to a par with
U.S. measures effected after September 11. Additionally, Fox has said
he plans to present a new intelligence gathering law to Mexico”s Congress.
While Prime Minister Jean Chretien has been sour on the notion, Canadian
businessmen and analysts in Mexico and the United States have suggested
the creation of a North American security perimeter around the entire
NAFTA zone. On a trip to Spain in mid-October, Fox told the Spanish media
that he had proposed a NAFTA security plan to Bush. During a radio address
a few days later he predicted that Canada, Mexico and the United States
would deepen coordinated action against terrorism, including intelligence
sharing, aviation security, and customs inspections.
While it has yet to be seen how the Bush administration will react to
Fox”s proposal, the president”s October 29 "Homeland Security Presidential
Directive to Help Combat Terrorism" does order the U.S. secretaries
of State and Treasury and the U.S. Attorney General to "increase
the sharing of customs and immigration information with Canada and Mexico,
and work with our neighbors to develop a shared immigration and customs
control database." And in early November, U.S. ambassador to Mexico
Jeffery Davidow told the Mexican press that high level binational meetings
scheduled for mid-November between Mexican National Security Adviser Aguilar
and U.S. Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge would focus on ways to create
a regional "security bubble" and the possible "harmonization"
of customs procedures. ¦
Freelance journalist and author Kent Paterson is a long-time contributor
to the IRC. He is also the author of The Hot Empire of Chile, a history
of the New Mexico chile pepper industry published by Arizona State University”s
Published by the Interhemispheric Resource Center”s
Americas Program . All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "Deepening U.S.-Mexico
Security Cooperation," Americas Program Investigative Report (Silver
City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, November 2001).