Mexico's Lawless Border Threatens U.S.

The second of three excerpts from “In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security.”

In his book, “The Next War,” the late Reagan administration defense secretary Caspar Weinberger predicted that by 2003 the United States would be at war with Mexico. Continued social unrest along the border regions, exacerbated by drug trafficking and illegal immigration, would eventually lead Washington and Mexico City to blows, he wrote. While that scenario has yet to play out, there are signs that “Cap” knew what he was talking about. While we are not fighting a conventional war, we are still in a battle to protect our borders by fighting a war of sovereignty.

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Although Mexican President Vicente Fox and others often speak of attempting to do something to reduce the flow of immigrants to the United States, in reality they only encourage it. Fox “dreams of a day when the border will open and his countrymen will no longer flee to survive.”

The Mexican president need dream no longer. There is little preventing the free flow of illegals into this country from Mexico. Not only is Fox not attempting to stop it, but he and his government are abetting it.

Due to bureaucratic red tape and corruption inherent in Mexican law-enforcement agencies, the one-hundred-person Houston Task Force on Terrorism reported that it had to sift through thousands of terrorist-related tips and pieces of evidence without the kind of logistical support they expected from an ally and neighbor. One task-force source noted that the Mexican security community, especially the Center for Investigations and National Security, was still mired in political corruption and that members in President Fox’s own administration insist they should be informed about any high-priority intelligence before it is passed on to U.S. authorities. The Fox administration has been suppressing information that might reveal the actual size of anti-U.S. terror cells in Mexico City and their connection to militant Muslim groups around Mexico and in many Latin American hot spots.

“Our Mexican and American officials are working together to arrest dangerous criminals, including drug smugglers and those who traffic in human beings. President Fox and I are determined to protect the safety of American people and the Mexican people,” President Bush announced in March 2004 as he and Fox mingled at the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch. In contrast, U.S. officials have yet to see that kind of cooperation. Instead, the Mexican government distributes kits to illegals preparing to cross the border. Designed to make their trip easier, they include water, condoms, Band-Aids, maps, and food supplies for a day or so. At the same time, President Fox tells us that they are trying to help reduce the flow of immigrants into the United States.

In early 2006 Mexico’s Human Rights Commission planned to distribute about seventy thousand maps to illegal border-crossers along with a guide to the expected risks. The poster-size maps “use red dots to pinpoint where hundreds of immigrants have died. Blue flags indicate where the 70 water tanks placed by Humane Borders are, and stars show where U.S. Border Patrol rescue beacons are located.” Incidentally, the Human Rights Commission, a Mexican-government-funded agency, suspended distribution of the maps after it was believed that anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen might utilize the map to help capture illegals. “This would be practically like telling the Minutemen where the migrants are going to be,” said Miguel ??ngel Paredes, spokesman for the Human Rights Commission. “We are going to rethink this, so that we wouldn’t almost be handing them over to groups that attack immigrants.”

This incident was not the first time the Mexican government sought to provide information for would-be illegals about entry into the United States. In January 2005 Mexico’s Foreign Ministry published a thirty-two-page comic book titled “The Guide for the Mexican Migrant.” The handbook provided tips with illustrations for situations such as:

•    To cross the river can be very risky, above all if you cross alone and at night.

•    If you cross by desert, try to walk at times when the heat will not be too intense.

•    If you get lost, guide yourself by lightposts, train tracks, or dirt roads.

•    If you decide to hire people traffickers to cross the border, consider the following precautions: Do not let them out of your sight. Remember that they are the only ones who know the lay of the land, and therefore the only ones who can get you out of that place.

•    It is better to be arrested for a few hours and repatriated to Mexico than to get lost in the desert.

Of course, some U.S. lawmakers were absolutely stunned by the Mexican government’s willingness to aid illegal immigration. Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth’s reaction was “more astonishment than anger that a government that claims to want to be an active partner in preventing illegal immigration is an active and willing accomplice to engendering more illegal immigration.”

This was certainly not the act of a friendly neighbor. How would the Mexican government respond if we encouraged our citizens to violate Mexican law? It is a great example of how hooked Mexico has become on remittances—dollars sent home by alien nationals in the United States. Remittances are now about eighteen billion dollars per year and account for more income to Mexico than any source other than oil exports.

Ironically, when the United States was considering actions to secure the border by building a security fence in 2005, Fox called the policy “shameful,” adding, “Mexico is not going to bear, it is not going to permit, and it will not allow a stupid thing like this wall.”

Although I am disturbed by Mexico’s intentional, premeditated circumvention of U.S. immigration laws, I am no longer surprised. Fox’s former foreign secretary told a Senate committee that Mexico would not cooperate with the United States unless we allowed an ever-increasing flow of laborers into our country. In addition to producing step-by-step guides for entering the United States illegally, the Mexican military routinely crosses onto U.S. soil, which violates every domestic and international law on the books.

Incursions on the Increase

Mexico has long been a haven for violent drug cartels as well as the primary source for most illegal immigration into the United States. But in recent years, suspected Mexican paramilitary and military units, loyal to the drug cartels, have made repeated armed incursions into the United States—all with the knowledge of our government. The Department of Homeland Security has documented 231 incursions from 1996 to 2005 involving Mexican military, state, or municipal police units. And more than a few U.S. officials believe that some of the Latin American drug cartels may be operating in support of our terrorist enemies.

In 2001 alone, twenty-three incursions were documented by the Border Patrol and other law-enforcement agencies, nine of them involving Mexican military troops. State and local police units accounted for the other fourteen incursions.

These raids feature squads dressed in Mexican army clothing, traveling in military-type Humvees. As noted above, the Department of Homeland Security has admitted there have been more than two hundred documented incursions by Mexican military or police—or drug or people smugglers dressed in military uniforms; there are no estimates of how many undocumented incidents have occurred. According to DHS, several Border Patrol agents have been wounded in these encounters.

In early 2006 the number of incursions rose dramatically after the Border Patrol slightly increased the number of agents and updated its technology at key points along the border. In need of more and better firepower to smuggle their “products” into the United States, the cartels and other criminal enterprises utilized more Mexican military-type units.

These incursions have become such routine occurrences that the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection now issues a wallet card known as the SALUTE card to Border Patrol agents. The card is a list of what agents should do when they encounter uniformed Mexican personnel on U.S. territory. SALUTE is an acronym for what agents are to observe and report about such incidents: size (of the unit), activity, location, unit, time, and equipment. The card also reminds U.S. personnel, “Remember: Mexican Army personnel are trained to evade, escape, and counter-ambush if necessary to escape.”

Two recent events in Texas and California highlight the challenge the United States faces on its southern border. They not only illustrate how vulnerable the border is to drug smuggling but also how difficult it is to get the Mexican government to cooperate with our efforts to control the smuggling.

On January 23, 2006, three SUVs were seen fording the Rio Grande at Neely’s Crossing. Hudspeth County, Texas, sheriff’s deputies gave chase, and the SUVs turned back and headed toward the river. There the caravan was met by a military-style Humvee with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun on the U.S. side of the river. One SUV blew a tire short of the river and was abandoned by the smugglers. One made it back across the river, but the third got stuck. A dozen men in battle-dress uniforms with AK-47 rifles appeared on the Mexican side of the river and helped to unload many bales of contraband from the marooned SUV. The sheriff’s deputies and highway patrol officers could only watch because they were outgunned and outmanned. After unloading their cargo, the Mexicans set fire to the SUV, leaving it to burn in the riverbed.

Two days later, in Tijuana, Mexico, a sophisticated eight-hundred-yard tunnel was found under the U.S.-Mexico border. Discovered near the Tijuana airport, the tunnel ran to a warehouse in the United States. The warehouse sheltered two trucks and a van, and the tunnel contained four tons of marijuana. Authorities said that four tunnels had been uncovered in the area in recent months. The latest discovered tunnel contained a cement floor and was large enough for people to walk through upright.

Hudspeth County, Texas, Sheriff Arvin West was convinced that the Humvee with the mounted machine gun at Neely’s Crossing as well as the dozen men in military-style uniforms were elements of the Mexican military. West has lived on the border all his life, speaks Spanish fluently, and has had considerable interaction with the Mexican military and Mexican police over the years.

West and several Border Patrol agents have seen dozens of similar Mexican military incursions into the United States occur in connection with drug smuggling. Many of the sixteen county sheriffs who make up the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition have a catalog of stories about similar incidents involving Mexican military forces along the Rio Grande.

The Mexican government’s reaction to the reports of the incident was predictable: a mixture of denial and confusion. At first, Mexican authorities said that their military had no Humvees in its arsenal and that the smugglers were using stolen military equipment and uniforms. Mexican foreign minister Luis Derbez then said that the smugglers might have been U.S. troops disguised as Mexicans. And then the Mexican government reported that its military forces had been ordered not to approach within three kilometers of the border.

Most disturbing, however, was the official U.S. response. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff downplayed the events by saying that most Mexican military incursions over the years had been “accidental.” The FBI was quoted by Mexican media as saying it supported the view that the uniformed personnel were smugglers and not Mexican military.

Consider the ramifications of these two reactions. First, does the Mexican government want us to believe that the drug cartels can operate freely along the border with stolen military vehicles, weapons, and uniforms, and the Mexican military is powerless to stop them? Do DHS and the State Department want us to believe that Hudspeth County law-enforcement eyewitnesses are ignorant or incapable of identifying Mexican military vehicles and uniforms? Is the U.S. government intent on ignoring the extent of the corruption and the involvement of the Mexican military in the multibillion-dollar drug-smuggling business? Of course not. Sadly, the federal government is more concerned about allowing the Mexican government to save face than it is about telling the truth to the American people.

Since Mexico now admits it is unable to control its border, it’s time the Border Patrol and local law enforcement be given the weapons to match the firepower of the cartels. New rules of engagement are necessary to allow them to return fire and also engage the smugglers intercepted on this side of the border. Law enforcement should not have to stand by as mere observers while smugglers recover their cargo on the southern bank of the Rio Grande.

It is widely understood by law-enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol, the FBI, and the DEA that high-ranking members of the Mexican military in the border regions are often bribed to cooperate in the drug cartels’ operations. The corruption of Mexican law-enforcement agencies is pervasive and systemic. And honest police officers and military commanders find themselves under constant threat; they are frequently the victims of violence and even assassination.

It is hard to believe that eight-hundred-yard tunnels can be excavated, equipped, and operated without the knowledge and cooperation of Tijuana law enforcement. How many hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens of various nationalities are being smuggled into California through such tunnels? Those tunnels are not only a problem for drug enforcement, they are a serious threat to our national security.

In February 2006 federal agents and local police officers seized several caches of weapons near Laredo, Texas. Intercepted were two completed bombs and materials for thirty-three more, three hundred primers, almost four thousand rounds of ammunition, five grenade shells, nine pipe bombs with end caps, twenty-six grenade triggers, thirty-one grenade spoons, forty grenade pins, nineteen black-powder casings, ninety-one firearm magazines, four silencers, six kits of unassembled automatic weapons, twenty assembled firearms (including AK-47s and AR-15s), two Uzi assault weapons, two bulletproof vests, sniper scopes, police scanners, pinhole cameras, and other pistols and rifles. Also found were cocaine, methamphetamines, four hundred pounds of marijuana, and five thousand dollars in cash. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents describes the bombs as improvised explosive devices, the formal designation for homemade devices often used in unconventional warfare by terrorists, guerrillas, or commando forces. Drug cartels have been known to use weapons and tactics similar to those of the terrorists, but in terms of bolstering border security, what does it matter who left the weapons? Armed drug-runners and terrorists represent an equal danger to American citizens.

While the Mexican government has, of course, emphatically denied its army is involved in any cross-border incursions, members of U.S. law enforcement as well as some federal law-enforcement personnel know better. They are convinced that the Mexican units seen on American soil are employing their specialized skills in support of drug, weapons, and human smuggling.

Even more disturbing is that this lack of cooperation doesn’t come cheap. Since 2000, U.S. spending on military and police aid to Mexico has risen from $16.3 million to $57.8 million. Unfortunately, this increase has not translated into results. The Mexican government has never believed that securing its border with the United States was a priority. Consequently, much of the equipment and resources we have given to Mexico to combat terrorism hasn’t produced positive results. Since 9/11, the United States has sent ten X-ray machines, sixteen of fifty-seven various helicopters promised to Mexico, $13 million in computer equipment, ten motorcycles, and twelve pickups. Ironically, of the helicopters given to Mexico since 2001, none has been stationed near the border as of December 2005. Instead, Mexico has become a coconspirator in other areas pertaining to border security, such as immigrant smuggling.

The Madrinas

There is an institution in Mexico that exists in some form in many Third-World countries: the “Madrinas” system. It is likely that the Mexican military personnel that were spotted at Neely’s Crossing were shadowy proxy criminals known as Madrinas. They are described as operating in the shadows because there is no formal organization, no union, no headquarters, no membership list, no leader. They can be described as proxies because they never undertake an activity without orders or permission from some government official. They are not freelance operators.

Officially recognized Mexican government employees are known as funcionarios. They are commissioned and recognized by a Mexican government agency, civilian or military. To augment these employees, officers of specific jurisdictions appoint others to function under the cover of their authority. These appointees are the Madrinas. (The word refers to a godmother or guardian angel.) Thus, Madrinas are an arm of the government but not officially part of the government. They are corrupt police chiefs and unofficial agents representing government officials.

Madrinas are not listed on any personnel roster, draw no salary, and get no benefits, but they act as if they are government employees. They often wear uniforms, carry government identification, and obtain equipment from legitimate agencies. Their credentials would be considered “honorary” in the United States, but an honorary cop here has no authority and is appointed to an honorary position for political purposes only. The Madrinas, however, carry the full force of legitimacy. They also have one very special quality: they are expendable. Government officials who use Madrinas to do their dirty work have “plausible deniability.”

Madrinas are paid through the “mordida,” or bribes, they collect. In turn, Madrinas give a large percentage of the mordida to their sponsoring government officials. Thus the incentive and necessity for criminal activity is built into the system, and drug smuggling has become a large part of the Madrinas’ livelihood in the border regions.

There are several advantages to employing Madrinas:

    1.    There is no payroll.

    2.    There are no official benefits.

    3.    There are no records. Officially, Madrinas don’t exist.

    4.    If there are complications of any sort, Madrinas are expendable.

    5.    When Madrinas are used, one can always disavow any relation to any activity. There are no records, no official authority, no accountability, no culpability.

    6.    Madrinas can be used as an intermediary between officials and the drug cartels.

    7.    When Madrinas are used, there are no photographs, letters, phone calls, or witnesses who can connect any government official with the criminal elements.

    8.    In serious cases of corruption or malfeasance, when someone must identified and punished, Madrinas can be scapegoats. They can be murdered, and an official can be portrayed as the hero for ending the problem.

    9.    If Madrinas are apprehended in the possession of government equipment (military vehicles, weapons, supplies, clothing, documents), they can be labeled as thieves and counterfeiters.

    10.    Madrinas do the dirty work so the authorities can remain above reproach.

    11.    Madrinas are usually chosen from the most brutal, morally depraved, meanest individuals in the community. Many have criminal records and have been imprisoned in the United States, Mexico, or both.

    12.    Since Madrinas are recruited from local thugs, the legitimate agency can co-opt the local criminal element into channeling their efforts into mutually beneficial activities. This allows an agency to avoid the embarrassment of escalating local crime statistics on file in Mexico City.

    13.    Madrinas have no retirement plan. They usually have a short life span. But the pay is exceptional.

Madrinas are good informants because they have loyalty to no one but themselves. U.S. law enforcement and Border Patrol agents have been able to gain information from several of them. And many Madrinas are killed by their Mexican sponsors for having informed on their activities or for holding back too much mordida or skimming drug loads.

Madrinas may or may not have criminal records when they are first recruited, but their subsequent activities are never considered as crimes, and they do not run the risk of having a criminal record as long as they function well as a Madrina. If a Madrina decides to emigrate to the United States, he can usually enter legally by obtaining a visa or border crossing card. Any criminal record he might have had can often be destroyed through a small bribe to one of his government friends. Additionally, if a Madrina tried to enter the United States illegally and were caught, he could have no criminal record on file that can be identified by U.S. authorities. And Mexico has no central registry of criminals or warrants like the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

It is somewhat surprising that neither the Border Patrol nor any U.S. official has brought up the possibility that Madrinas were responsible for the highly publicized incident at Neely’s Crossing. Certainly the intelligence unit of the Border Patrol and the FBI are aware of the Madrinas system and their involvement in the drug-smuggling business. Perhaps the Bush administration does not want to embarrass Mexican president Vicente Fox by discussing this topic publicly.

Whatever the reason for the U.S. government’s silence on this question, avoiding a discussion of the Madrinas problem merely plays into the Mexican government’s strategy of denial. The Madrinas system is a huge embarrassment and a grave problem that will not be overcome anytime soon, but openly discussing it is a first step toward dealing with it.

The important point is that Madrinas cannot function without the official sanction of whatever agency they are working for. They are not independent, freelance criminals. Thus, the Mexican government was involved in the Texas incident through its military, but it has plausible deniability through the convenience of Madrinas. In this case, like so many others, Madrinas served the purpose for which they are designed.

But not all border incursions identified as the Mexican army are the work of Madrinas. In the view of local law enforcement and many Border Patrol agents, the Mexican army is solely responsible for numerous violations of U.S. sovereignty. But whether a particular incident was perpetrated by military units or by Madrinas serving as the army’s proxy, the Mexican government bears responsibility.

Why the U.S. government insists on minimizing the Mexican government’s involvement in these incursions is a good question. The true character and extent of the lawlessness on the Mexican side of the border needs to be understood by the American public as part of the debate over border security. Any “security partnership” with Mexico must take into account the fact that the Mexican government chooses to overlook the incipient anarchy within its borders and is unable to control elements of its government that are on the payroll of the drug cartels.

The Mexican government must stop making excuses, and the U.S. government must start being honest with the American public. It is time for our government leaders to confront the problem honestly and effectively—our future depends on it.