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The title of this commentary, published March 22, remarkably well identifies one of the main ideas that follows: the potential danger to the United States not only of the porous borders with Mexico and Canada, but also the relatively unguarded state of the Mexican-Guatemalan boundary. —Ed.

Have We Gone to Iraq and Ruin? A Personal Inquiry

by George W. Grayson

On March 23, President George W. Bush will host his Mexican and Canadian counterparts at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. A prime topic on the trilateral agenda will be the porosity of the borders between the U. S. and its neighbors to the north and south.

In anticipation of this session, Mexican President Vicente Fox has played the victimization card. At a March 16 press conference, he stated that new walls running along parts of the U. S.-Mexico frontier must be demolished” because they are “discriminatory” and “against freedom.” “No country that is proud of itself should build walls,” he added. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Conditions along the Rio Grande bear heavily on national security, and President Bush must not allow President Fox to dominate the parleys with self-serving tirades about U. S. policy. In addition to ensuring the security of the U. S.-Canada and U. S.-Mexico borders, North American decision makers must focus on the 600-mile Mexican-Guatemalan interface. Mexico’s southern flank–an open sesame for drug traffickers, illegal aliens, smugglers, and terrorists–constitutes a porous, crime-ridden, and largely neglected third border of the United States.

Once U. S.-bound foreigners slip into Mexico from Guatemala, they have a better than even chance of making it into California, Arizona, or Texas. And despite an enlargement of the Border Patrol and introduction of high-tech surveillance equipment, as many as 1 million unlawful crossings of the U. S.-Mexico border probably occur each year. “Anyone with any determination can still make it into the United States,” a Border Patrol agent told the New York Times this month. “It is all nonsense, all smoke and mirrors.” (Eric Lipton, “Despite New Efforts Along Arizona Border, ‘Serious Problems’ Remain,” 3/14/05)

Chiapas, one of Mexico’s southernmost state and the one that shares the longest border with Guatemala, abounds in oil, natural gas, water, hydropower, archeological treasures, grazing land, and fertile soil. At the same time, this South Carolina-sized state is among the nation’s worse off in annual per-capita income (US$6,253), illiteracy (22.9 percent), dwellings without electricity (21.1 percent), and homes with earthen floors (40.7 percent). It also ranks number-one on the “marginalization” index compiled by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Information.

The poverty which besets many of the 4 million Chiapans is especially harsh among descendants of the Mayans, who make up one-fourth of the population. The situation is even worse in the western Guatemalan departments of San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and Retalhuleu that border Chiapas. Ethnically similar to Chiapans, Guatemalans often cross the Suchiate River to work in Mexico. Like other Latin Americans–and people from scores of other countries worldwide, including Middle Easterners–many Guatemalans who steal into Mexico are destined for the United States. Whatever their reason for doing so, they are taking their lives into their hands.

Embassies, nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, and Mexico’s migrant-protection groups find that most abuses suffered by immigrants entering Mexico take place along its zigzagged, mountainous border with Guatemala, where there are 200 crossing points. Far fewer crimes are committed on Mexico’s other southern border, with Belize.

A study conducted in the Tenosique area of Tabasco, a Mexican state neighboring Chiapas, found that three groups — criminals (47.5 percent), the local police (15.2 percent), and migration agents (15.2 percent) — accounted for most of the exploitation of migrants arriving from Central America. The 100 or more criminal bands that prey on interlopers run the gamut from petty thugs to coyotes (smugglers), from mafia-style squads to vicious street gangs.

The most notorious gang, often likened to the Crips and the Bloods of Los Angeles, is the Mara Salvatruchas, composed chiefly of former members of the Salvadoran army who have been deported from Los Angeles and other American cities. These tattooed hoodlums, who number in the tens of thousands, style themselves as “migrant hunters.” They rob, mutilate, and murder the illegal aliens who jump off northbound trains approaching checkpoints at night. Aliens remaining on the “trains of death” often clamor about the box cars, falling off or getting crushed in the wheels. The bloodthirsty Maras also carry out car thefts and kidnappings, according to a Catholic immigrant-aid committee.

Rather than engage in violence, unscrupulous officials typically exact bribes. The payments may be a few dollars to allow a single person to transit the border or thousands of dollars to permit the passage of drugs, weapons, stolen automobiles, prostitutes, exotic animals, or archeological artifacts. Individuals and professional smugglers often endure shakedowns from both Mexican and Guatemalan officials before encountering private-sector bandits.

In El Carmen, Guatemala–just across the bridge from Talisman, Mexico, and a stone’s throw away from a Guatemalan immigration post–there is a large open lot packed with vehicles bearing California, Texas, and Arizona license tags. The lot highlights the impunity with which malefactors carry out their trade. Equally visible from the bridge joining the twin cities of Ciudad Hidalgo (Mexico) and Tecunuman (Guatemala) are the ubiquitous balsas, boards perched on truck tires that serve as precarious ferries for migrants and locals willing to pay a few pesos to cross the slow-moving, chocolate-colored Suchiate. The largest number of complaints of wrongdoing in Guatemala is lodged against that country’s National Civil Police, which is even more corrupt than the notoriously corrupt Mexican police. The labor union that represents Guatemala’s immigration agents also engages in the lucrative smuggling of people.

Individual smugglers, who can charge $5,000 or more to guide one person 1,500 miles from Central America to the United States, can earn as much as $100,000 per year — an amount that a handful of Middle Easterners and Asians are willing to pay to reach the United States. Professional criminal organizations — some of them headquartered in China, Korea, or the Philippines — can amass huge fortunes in smuggling. The smuggling of humans is thought to be the third most profitable illegal activity in Mexico, after narcotrafficking and commerce in stolen automobiles. After visiting Chiapas, Gabriela Rodriguez, the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s special rapporteur on migrants’ rights, said: “Mexico is one of the countries where illegal immigrants are highly vulnerable to human rights violations and become victims of degrading sexual exploitation and slavery-like practices, and are denied access to education and healthcare.” And yet Mexican officials continue to emphasize abuses at their northern border instead of in the south.

To its credit, the Fox regime has increased funding for Beta groups, which were created in 1996 within the National Migration Institute (INM) to safeguard illegal migrants. This unarmed force furnishes food, lodging, protection, and legal representation to aliens, regardless of their status. However, of the eight Beta group offices in the country, only two are in the south: one in Tapachula, and the other farther north in Comitan, Chiapas. The INM chief has pledged that the Betas’ presence in the south would expand from the 47 agents working from Tapachula and Comitan to more than 130 officers situated along the five main road, river, and rail immigration routes that wind through Chiapas, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Veracruz.

Promises aside, this well-regarded organization is grossly understaffed. For example, the Tapachula office has fewer than two-dozen agents. These men and women, working two long shifts, must cover an area roughly the size of Delaware. While Beta is not a law-enforcement body, almost half of the officers in Tapachula were supplied by state and local police forces.

As part of an American-inspired “Southern Plan” to keep northbound migrants from reaching the United States, the INM has launched the “Orderly and Secure Repatriation” program for illegals. Since ad hoc expulsions in the past failed to reduce the flow of migrants, now Guatemalans, Hondurans, or Salvadorans apprehended anywhere in Mexico who are in the country illegally are dispatched to the INM’s Tapachula center. If necessary, they spend the night in a hostel operated by Scalabrini missionaries. From Tapachula, they are bused to the frontier of their home country and handed over to local immigration authorities. Deportations totaled 141,130 in 2003 and 203,128 in 2004.

During an unannounced visit to INM’s Tapachula center, the author witnessed the orderly and businesslike dispatch of illegal aliens to their home countries. I could not observe what happened to the deportees once they left Mexican soil; however, 95% of the 3,000 complaints of human rights violations received by the Casa del Migrante in Tecun Uman came from Central Americans deported from Mexico. Mexican government secretary and presidential candidate Santiago Creel has convened meetings and signed cooperative agreements with his counterparts in Central America and other regions in an effort to do something about the Chiapas nightmare. The challenge lies in converting worthy rhetoric into concrete action, such as INM’s construction of a new hostel in Tapachula that will hold 1,500 people. The INM holds most unlawful aliens from other countries at a Mexico City detention center before deporting them. This facility teems with illegal migrants representing dozens of nationalities, from Albanians to Yemenis. Central American consular officers applaud the INM’s readiness to permit them to visit detainees. Whenever possible, the INM seeks reimbursement for the plane ticket from the affected alien, his family, or country. In most cases, the Mexican government foots the bill, although the United States has underwritten a major share of the expense of repatriations to Central America.

Last August, the FBI issued an alert that Adnan El Shukrijumah had examined the New York Stock Exchange as a possible terrorism target. The Saudi pilot, an Al Qaeda spy who is sought by U. S. law enforcement officials, was seen in Honduras. Earlier this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that people from countries with ties to Al Qaeda have entered the U. S. from Mexico, using false identities.

Time magazine published in its March 21, 2005 issue a restricted bulletin based on the interrogation of a former lieutenant of Abu Musab Al Zarkawi (“Watch the Border,” by Adam Zagorin, Timothy J. Burger, Brian Bennett.) Al Zarkawi is the Jordanian-born head of a terrorist organization that has moved closer to Al Qaeda in recent months. According to the document, Al Zarkawi–the most wanted man in Iraq-was planning attacks against “soft targets” like cinemas, restaurants, and schools in the United States. Intelligence agents who questioned the aide told Time that Zarkawi had spoken of obtaining a “visa in Honduras” as the first step to steering agents to the U. S. via Mexico. Mexican attorney general Rafael Macedo de la Concha, however, strenuously denies that his nation serves as an avenue for Al Qaeda operatives to reach the U. S.

Washington cannot ignore Mexico’s southern border when crafting a program to protect U. S. security.
First, if it hasn’t provided a portal already, Chiapas presents an inviting gateway for terrorists determined to strike a blow against the U. S.

Second, the Mara Salvatruchas, who have spread throughout Mexico, also commit treacherous acts along the Rio Grande and on America’s East and West Coasts. In fact, the Washington, D.C. area has become a killing ground for at least one Mara faction, the MS-13.

Third, Mexico’s Tijuana, Juarez, and Gulf drug cartels exert enormous influence in the three border cities through which 80 percent of bilateral commerce flows. These well-heeled mafias obtain a portion of their supplies from networks that pass through Central America. They have flexed their muscles in recent months with a September 11, 2004, daylight shooting in Culiacan, the murder-plagued capital of Sinaloa state and home to many narco-families. On New Year’s Eve, a fellow inmate assassinated the brother of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, chief of the immensely powerful Juarez Cartel, in La Palma prison near Mexico City. Three weeks later, in retaliation for a federal crackdown on prisons, criminals executed six staff members outside the high-security prison in Matamoras. This city on the Texas border is home to the infamous Gulf Cartel, which, in alliance with the Tijuana Cartel, competes for turf with Guzman’s Juarez band. The Zetas, composed of well-trained ex-Mexican army personnel, constitute a lethal paramilitary arm of the Gulf Cartel that can battle foes on both sides of the frontier.

Fourth, when provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement permitting the free flow of American and Canadian grains into Mexico take effect, hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers there will be uprooted. NAFTA may be a sacred cow for the administrations of Bush and Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, but the deracination of Mexican peasants will enlarge northbound immigration from a flood to a tidal wave.

Finally, compelling evidence gathered over the last fifty years confirms that:

(1) Guest-worker programs and amnesties serve to expand, not decrease, illegal immigration.
(2) While the introduction of more personnel and sophisticated surveillance equipment at borders is  vital, such moves will only bear fruit in  conjunction with the concerted prosecution of  those employers who hire unlawful workers.
(3) Americans and other legal residents are willing to perform hard, difficult labor, provided  that the pay is reasonable and the working environment safe.
(4) Mexico, which is a remarkably rich country, should not be allowed to use the U. S. border as an  “escape valve” when its politicians refuse to enact the fiscal, energy, labor, and judicial reforms that are crucial to achieving the  sustained development required to create opportunities for their fellow citizens.

The Bush-Fox-Martin conversations about migration, security, trade, and other trilateral issues must take into account the dangers to the well-being of North Americans posed by Mexico’s sieve-like, corruption-plagued border with Guatemala. Trying to block the influx of illegal immigrants, smugglers, terrorists, and drugs by concentrating exclusively on U. S. borders with Canada and Mexico is like relying on an umbrella to keep dry during a gully washer when your shoes are riddled with holes.

Originally published March 22, 2005, as E-Notes and by FAX by the Foreign Policy Research Inst., Philadelphia, PA ( REPUBLISHED BY PERMISSION


George  W. Grayson is a professor of government at the College  of William & Mary, an associate scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Inst., and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International  Studies.


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