U.S. Pays Mexico to Secure Border

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.

Two years later, the budget shot up to $37 million, including $25.5 million for border security following the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaida. The aid included probes used for searching packages and looking behind ships' bulkheads, as well as "ion scanners" for sniffing out drugs or explosives.

Since then, the equipment sent to Mexico has gotten bigger and more expensive.

Recent donations include:

* Ten X-ray machines used by Mexican customs.

* Four Schweizer 333 helicopters, the first of a fleet of 28 that will be given to the Mexican Justice Department.

* Twelve UH-1H "Huey" helicopters, the first of 29 that the government is refurbishing and giving to Mexico.

* $13 million in computers, printers, communications lines and refurbishing of offices for Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency.

* Ten motorcycles and five trailers for Mexico's National Migration Institute and 12 Ford Lobo pickups.

This month, the U.S. Border Patrol taught water rescue techniques and gave equipment to authorities working on Mexico's border with Guatemala, the first time such training has taken place in Mexico.

Next year, the United States plans to give Mexico eight more helicopters and as many as six more X-ray scanners, three of which will go to Mexico's southern border with Guatemala.

The United States also plans to help Mexico with "installation of a telephone intercept capability," according to a State Department report. A department spokesman said that plans for phone-tapping equipment had been delivered but that the equipment had not been donated yet.

Meanwhile, Canada has gotten only one item from the United States since 2001: a 50-foot patrol boat used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver.

Canada has fewer illegal immigrant crossings, and its police are better equipped than Mexico's. But its border with the United States is twice as long as Mexico.

At least one confirmed terrorist has tried to cross the U.S.-Canadian border: Ahmed Ressam, who was sentenced in July to 22 years in prison for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999. There have been no such cases on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Military aid

The Pentagon is also taking a bigger role in Mexico under the banner of fighting terrorism, providing more money and training more soldiers, a development that worries many Mexicans. For decades, the Mexican government avoided any contact with the U.S. military. The distrust dates to the 1800s, when Mexico lost half of its territory to the United States through the Texan War of Independence and the U.S.-Mexican War. In 1914, the U.S. military invaded the city of Veracruz and occupied it for six months.

But in recent years, the Mexican government has forged a closer relationship with the United States under President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with conservative leanings.

"Mexico has changed in that area," Fox told The Arizona Republic in an interview aboard his presidential airplane in December. "Today, we have a new way of looking at sovereignty, and this in no way affects sovereignty."

As a result, the Pentagon earmarked $2.5 million this year for "foreign military financing" in Mexico. It is the first time in recent memory that Mexico has received direct aid from the United States for buying equipment.

The aid is aimed at "improving the capability of Mexican forces to respond to terrorist threats," a State Department report said, adding that it likely will go toward radar, communications and "detection" equipment.

The U.S. military has also begun training Mexican soldiers to fight terrorists and gather intelligence.

"The Mexican military has a bad record in this area," said Adrian Ramirez, president of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights. "It's very worrying that the United States is turning to them for this."

The United States has long given free training to several hundred Mexican soldiers each year, but almost all the classes were in technical fields such as flight training or electronics repair.

But in late 2003, the focus changed. Of the 892 Mexican soldiers trained in fiscal 2004, 233 took classes under the new Counterterrorism Training Fellowship Program.

In 2005, the counterterrorism program spent $450,000 in Mexico. That's more than it spent in Colombia, a country that has been fighting a 41-year civil war against leftist guerrillas.

Mexican soldiers took courses like "Intelligence for Combating Terrorism," "Basic Intelligence Officer," "Waterside Port Security" and "Response to Terrorism." Four of the students were trained at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

In another change, 56 of the counterterrorism students were trained in Mexico City. Until recently, Mexico would not permit U.S. military trainers on its soil, meaning the soldiers had to fly to the United States to take classes.

Mexican military cooperation is "critical to U.S. homeland defense," the State Department said in a report to Congress justifying its aid plans for 2006. But the Mexican military is keeping the increased aid a secret.

When The Republic requested a list of items supplied by the U.S. government, the National Defense Secretariat responded with a letter saying those records would remain sealed to the public for 12 years.

"The (Mexican) government has been very quiet with its information about U.S. aid," said Celina Fernandez Vizcaino, director of the International Studies Program at the University of Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. "If that information were more widely known, like that Mexican soldiers are training with Americans, it would be a scandal."

A court order

The increased aid comes with one catch, however, and it could derail at least part of what is headed to Mexico next year.

In 2000, Mexico signed a treaty setting up the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal that can try people for war crimes and genocide. The court opened in The Hague, Netherlands, in March 2003.

The United States does not support the court because it fears Americans, as citizens of a superpower, could be unfairly singled out for prosecution. It has decided to punish any country that supports the court by withholding non-drug-related military aid.

Mexico finally ratified the treaty creating the court and sent it to the United Nations on Oct. 28 of this year.

By doing so, it could lose the $2.5 million in foreign military financing, as well as the free military training. The United States has already cut off similar aid to 12 other Latin American countries. President Fox has refused to withdraw from the court.

"We will not accept any kind of pressure over our participation in that court," he told The Republic. "We will not tolerate blackmail from anybody. If they try to do it, they will not succeed."

Fernandez said the U.S. influence could be a political bomb. "Even if the United States is not directly pressuring Mexico with aid, this could give the appearance that our foreign policy is being influenced, and that is a very serious problem," she said.

The affected programs are only a small part of the $50.6 million in military and police aid that the United States has budgeted for Mexico next year, and some of that aid could be saved by reclassifying it as drug-related.

The State Department has not said how much Mexico stands to lose.

Some U.S. critics say the police and military aid is a waste because Mexico has done little to stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the border illegally each year.

"The government of Mexico is a co-conspirator in the smuggling of immigrants," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus. "This is how we reward them, with helicopters and ways to tap phones? ... Somebody just has a lot more trust than they should have in Mexico's ability to be a good neighbor."

Fox disagrees

But Fox says the equipment and training are being put to good use in the fight against drug smugglers and potential terrorists, making the United States a safer place.

In March, Mexico, Canada and the United States signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, which calls for a continentwide security strategy.

Fox bristles at any suggestion that the United States pays for Mexico's cooperation.

"They don't subsidize us or pay us anything," he said. "It's a cooperative effort because we're partners. NAFTA has taken the United States, Mexico and Canada to a higher level of cooperation. Because of that, we need to work together on security aspects as well."

(The Arizona Republic -- 01/02/06)

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