It was a sunny day in Texas, and the mood was upbeat at George W. Bush's ranch as the U.S. president shook the hand of his Mexican counterpart and thanked him for helping keep America safe.
"In this age of terror, the security of our borders is more important than ever, and the cooperation between Mexico and American border and law enforcement is stronger than ever," Bush said during the March 2004 summit.
Like Bush, U.S. officials have repeatedly praised Mexico's efforts to bolster security on its side of the border as the countries try to present a united face against criminals and terrorists in the wake of Sept. 11. But the reality is that U.S. taxpayers have bankrolled much of Mexico's increased border vigilance. From X-ray scanners and helicopters to intelligence training, the United States has been quietly pouring millions of dollars into Mexico in the hopes of bolstering U.S. national security.
U.S. spending on military and police aid to Mexico has more than tripled in the past five years to $57.8 million with the hope it will help protect America's southern flank. But the funding also marks a dramatic shift in the relationship between the two countries, as Mexico, long wary of accepting military and police aid from its northern neighbor, becomes the third-biggest recipient in Latin America behind Colombia and Peru.
Arizona is the most popular corridor for illegal traffic across the U.S.-Mexican border. Migrants who have committed no crime in Mexico cannot legally be stopped from crossing into the United States by Mexican authorities. However, by equipping and training Mexican police and soldiers, the United States is hoping they will be able to stop drug smugglers and terrorists.
"Being an Arizonan, I'm worried about our back door," said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "We've realized that these same conduits could be used by terrorists. ... And now, the Mexicans need certain equipment and capabilities to act when we give them intelligence packages."
Some Mexicans worry about the impact of the increasing aid on the Mexican military, which has a checkered human rights record. Others wonder how the avalanche of funds and equipment will influence Mexico's independence in world affairs.
And some in the United States wonder if it's worth funding a government that has done little to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants.
Opening the pocketbook
U.S. spending on military and police aid to Mexico has risen from $16.3 million in 2000 to $57.8 million in 2005, with the U.S. Department of Defense handling an ever-bigger share of the handouts. Adam Isaacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank that tracks military aid, said, "The Mexicans are not going to devote a lot of their meager resources to the border when it's not really a priority for them."
It's unclear how much of the aid is being felt on the Arizona-Mexico border. Of the new helicopters given to Mexico since 2001, none has been stationed along the Arizona line. Most of the intelligence and counterterrorism training has gone to Mexican marines and naval officers, few of whom are stationed along the Arizona border.
However, Mexican forces are getting better at catching drug planes in neighboring Sonora state, partly because of better coordination at control rooms that were built with U.S. money. And at least two U.S.-funded X-ray scanners are at work in Nogales.
The State Department mainly doles out economic and humanitarian aid. But it also gives money and equipment to law enforcement agencies through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. In 2000, it spent a modest $4.07 million on military and police aid to Mexico, mainly on binoculars, computers and other equipment for Mexican anti-drug agents. Not a single dollar was earmarked for border security.