Obama Administration Considers Plan to Bolster Mexico’s Southern Border

Three-layer security line 140 miles from southern border aimed to fight drug, human trafficking

Janet Napolitano / AP
August 22, 2013

Obama administration and Mexican government officials recently discussed creating a three-tier security system designed to protect Mexico’s southern border from drug and human traffickers, according to U.S. officials.

The border control plan calls for U.S. funding and technical support of three security lines extending more than 100 miles north of Mexico’s border with Guatemala and Belize. The border security system would use sensors and intelligence-gathering to counter human trafficking and drug running from the region, a major source of illegal immigration into the United States.

According to the officials who discussed the U.S.-Mexican talks on condition of anonymity, the Mexican government proposed setting up three security cordons using electronic sensors and other security measures along the southern Mexican border, along a line some 20 miles from the southern border, and along a third security line about 140 miles from the southern Mexican territorial line.

The plan would be funded in part through the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-led anti-drug trafficking program that has involved nearly $2 billion in U.S. funds.

Border security was a major topic during the visit to Mexico last month by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary Alan Bersin.

Napolitano made no mention of the southern border protection plan after her visit.

"The United States and Mexico have taken unprecedented steps in recent years to deepen our cooperation along our shared border," she said in a July 23 statement.

During the visit, Napolitano signed an agreement on border security communications aimed at improving responses to border violence. In April, another agreement was signed to improve U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican Federal Police law enforcement coordination along the U.S.-Mexican border.

A DHS spokesman would not say if southern Mexico border security was discussed during the recent Napolitano visit. He referred questions about the three-tier border security system to the White House.

A White House spokeswoman had no comment and referred questions to DHS and the State Department. A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Mexican Embassy spokesman Ariel Moutsatsos declined to comment.

The plan apparently is being kept secret within the administration over concerns that disclosure would fuel Republican critics of the administration’s record on border security.

Asked to comment on the southern Mexico border security plan, Rep. Ted Poe (R., Texas), a senior member of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on immigration, said he opposes the effort.

"We need to take care of the United States first when it comes to border security," he told the Free Beacon. "The United States seems to be very concerned about protecting the border of other nations and needs to be more concerned about protecting our own border."

Poe also said that at a time of fiscal austerity, "We should be spending funds on border security and national security in the United States."

"Mexico has a problem, obviously, but it is their responsibility to protect the sovereignty of their borders and it is our responsibility to protect the sovereignty of our border," he said.

Recent congressional assessments have contradicted White House claims that during the Obama administration U.S.-Mexico border security improved.

The Government Accountability Office stated in a June 23 report that Customs and Border Protection and DHS claims of progress in stemming illegal border crossings are difficult to confirm. The agency challenged the accuracy of the government reporting process for the number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants, a figure that the White House said has shown a decline in illegal border crossings.

"Opportunities exist to improve DHS’s management of border security assets," the report said, adding that DHS had problems deploying electronic surveillance technology on the Southwest border.

A separate Congressional Research Service report published in May said data on illegal immigration was not designed "to measure illegal border flows or the degree to which the border is secured."

The White House web site states that U.S. border security is "stronger than it has ever been" but "there is more work to do." Recent efforts have included increasing the number of border patrol agents and using drones for border surveillance.

The Mexican online news outlet La Journada reported July 29 that references to discussions on Mexico’s southern border during the Napolitano visit were initially included in an official Mexican government press release, but were later removed for unexplained reasons.

The final statement said "the Government Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, today led a meeting to talk about strengthening border security of our country, in order to achieve an orderly migration flow and respect for human rights."

The newspaper speculated that omitting the word may have been designed to hide U.S. and Mexican plans for joint action on the southern border.

A U.S. official who is critical of the proposed U.S. support for Mexico’s southern border security program said the U.S.-Mexican talks on the southern border were reported inside the U.S. government recently and show "hypocrisy and disdain for American security."

"The administration appears more concerned about the security of Mexico’s southern border than defending our southern border," the official said.

The White House apparently favors allowing more illegal immigrants into the United States, the official added.

Last month, a 20-page White House report on immigration and American agriculture concluded that farmers would face labor shortages if immigration laws were enforced.

"Without providing a path to earned citizenship for unauthorized farmworkers and a new temporary program that agriculture employers would use, a significant portion of this farm workforce will remain unauthorized, thereby susceptible to immigration enforcement actions that could tighten the supply of farm labor," said the report, which was reported on by the Washington Times July 29.

Mexico’s government outlined plans under the Merida Initiative earlier this month and provided them to the United States, according to Mexican news reporters.

The El Universal newspaper reported Aug. 7 that 15 projects were on the list and included a focus on improving intelligence gathering by federal security forces.

No specifics of the proposed Merida projects were disclosed.

The Merida Initiative, also called Plan Mexico, is a security cooperation pact between the United States and Mexico aimed at countering drug trafficking, organized crime, money laundering and securing the border. Since its launch in 2008, Congress has appropriated $1.9 billion.

The administration asked Congress to provide $234 million for the program in fiscal 2013 and for this fiscal year is seeking $183 million, mainly for training, equipment and intelligence support.

"Congress may wish to examine how well the Mexican government’s security strategy supports U.S. interests in Mexico," a Congressional Research Service report published in June stated.

Congress sought to pass major immigration reform legislation earlier this summer. A Senate bill was passed in June but the legislation is facing opposition in the House.

The bill would seek to improve border security, a key Republican demand, as well as offer citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.

House Republican leaders said in a joint statement in July that the American people want the border secured, immigration laws enforced and problems with the immigration system fixed.

"But they don’t trust a Democratic-controlled Washington," the Republican leadership statement said.

The House has introduced five immigration bills, including legislation drafted by Reps. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) and Poe that seeks to secure borders and reform the immigration system.

McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a critic of the administration’s border security policies, could not be reach for comment.

However, Poe and McCaul on Friday criticized the administration’s border security efforts in an op-ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

"Americans know better than the Obama administration; they have heard the claims that the border is secure, but they know we're not anywhere near that goal," they said.

The two lawmakers are backing proposed immigration reform bills. The McCaul bill would require the Homeland Security Department to develop a comprehensive national strategy for controlling U.S. borders. The Poe legislation calls for using National Guard troops to regain control of the border.

"In place of a national plan, we have patched up individual holes—causing illegal immigration to shift to less fortified sectors instead of stopping it altogether," they stated, noting that Congress’ General Accountability Office estimates the U.S. government has operational control of 44 percent of borders.

"We must stop plugging holes, and instead secure the entire border in a fiscally responsible way," they stated. "Our border insecurity is decades in the making, and time has shown that without a national strategy, we will never see lasting progress. It's time for real results we can measure; it's time for accountability for the administration; it's time to do this the smart way."