Challenges to American-Mexican Security Cooperation

Rick Perry’s remarks about American military intervention may have strained bilateral relations.

Texas’ governor Rick Perry recently suggested that Mexico and the United States should cooperate militarily to solve the drug conflict along their border. The comment irked the political leadership in Mexico. Mexico’s ambassador to the United States was very clear when he stated that the possibility was not on the table.

Although violence is rising and corruption among the Mexican armed forces increasing, there are historical and political reasons for limiting military cooperation between the two North American countries.

Throughout Latin America, sovereignty has been traditionally been a highly regarded principle. Its countries were forged from independence struggles with European powers. Once independent, arguments which emphasized the protection of territorial integrity and of sovereignty against foreign aggression became factors of social cohesion in these states and helped shape their national identities. They quickly became sacrosanct principles for the young nations. The second wave of colonialism, in Africa and Asia, and the subsequent interventionist policies of the United States during the Cold War only helped to accentuate their importance.

For Mexicans, speaking of territorial integrity and the United States at the same time is especially contentious. The 1846-1848 Mexican-American War ended in Washington annexing nearly half of Mexican territory. It is an event that every Mexican is taught well in school.

Friction endured in the twentieth century. Under Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule, the bilateral relationship has had more downs than ups. Factions within the party did not bother to hide their discomfort with American foreign policy and publicly supported leftist guerrillas in Central America.

Improvements in the relationship were rapidly seen when the most technocratic faction within PRI arrived to power and even more when the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRI in 2000. However, security policy and cooperation of both countries is still restrained by arguments of sovereignty.

Recognizing that drug trafficking is a transnational problem that Mexico cannot confront by itself, the current government has demonstrated a willingness to improve bilateral cooperation in the security area. It agreed to unmanned American drone aircraft patrolling the border and let American agents operate in Mexican airports. These measures were widely criticized by Mexican society however which, by majority, regards American actions within its national territory as tantamount to intervention. Consequently, PAN’s opposition may use their concessions as political weapons. American politicians should bear this in mind, especially as Mexico prepares for presidential elections in 2012.

Governor Perry may have won some (potential) votes by portraying himself as a hardliner on border issues but he may have also contributed to what appears is a deterioration in the bilateral relationship. The consequences of the secretive and badly planned operation “Fast and Furious,” as well as other ones which the United States Congress has just found about, have already strained interagency ties between both countries, affecting the trust and progress that had been achieved.

Trust is essential when it comes to security policy and military cooperation between two nation. Mexico won’t end cross-border efforts but isn’t eager to accept more “help” either. Innovative approaches may not be adopted because of Mexico’s reluctance. Yet a return to a more backward thinking may be on the horizon. Opinion polls for next year’s election suggest a victory to the PRI. The party has upheld much more traditionalist views regarding international relations than the PAN.

This is not to say that the PRI will suddenly retreat the military from the north and pact with the cartels. But it may not be as willing as the PAN to improve security cooperation with the United States

Presidential elections are still far from now and anything can happen in the meantime. Success on the security front could boost the PAN’s chances of retaining the presidency. If the PRI holds on to high approval rates however, American politicians may want to consider what they say or do to keep from further straining bilateral ties.