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Security Policy Shift in Mexico is Seen as Push to Reaffirm Sovereignty

A former U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent says that a new security policy announced in Mexico signals a growing focus on sovereignty and a shift from some initiatives considered priorities by the United States.

A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter patrols over the Paso del Norte International Bridge between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on Tuesday March 27, 2012.

Security initiatives recently announced by the Mexican government suggest that the country may move to reaffirm its sovereignty and focus less on the interests of the U.S. and other foreign countries, a former assistant special agent at the Department of Homeland Security said.

David Ramirez, who also worked in Texas as a U.S. Border Patrol agent and later as the director of investigations for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said a government’s priority should be the safety of its people and stability, and Mexico is no different. 

“I am looking at it as someone who worked the border for 30 years,” he said. “As a country, Mexico has to take care of its people and say ‘I don’t have to please any other country but I have to please my citizens.’”

Last month, just weeks after being sworn in, President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, outlined a strategy to fight crime that would, in part, create a 10,000-member police force to focus on crimes like murder, kidnapping and extortion. It emphasized a shift from the previous administration’s focus on top cartel leaders.

Ramirez said that the policy doesn’t mean that the PRI would be cutting deals with criminals, something the party was accused of during its previous time in power.

“I don’t think they are saying they are going to look the other way” on drug trafficking he said. “I think they are going to say their priority and funding and focus is going to be on public safety.”

He speculated that it could mean the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico —  and the joint intelligence-gathering under way — may change. Ramirez, who worked covert international cases investigating human and drug smuggling and illegal immigration, said his experience working with the PRI and PAN was “almost like night and day.”

“The PRI has always been prideful of their sovereignty, almost to the point of fault, while the PAN was more receptive to working with the U.S. and U.S. law enforcement in particular,” Ramirez said, referring the National Action Party. “And as with us, the rules of the game tend to change once a new political power is elected to office. I believe the new Mexican administration will direct its efforts on a National Public Safety campaign that targets the crime that affects the everyday life of the Mexican citizens and will focus less on transnational shipments of narcotics or of its territory being used as a strategic transit country for illegal narcotics intended for the U.S.”

In his assessment of Peña Nieto's plan, Eric Olson, the associate director of the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he expects U.S. lawmakers to react to what the plan doesn’t entail.

“Two other interesting points emerge for the United States,” he wrote for the center’s website. “No specific mention was made of international security cooperation nor of the threats posed by drug trafficking or transnational organized crime.  These are clearly priorities for the United States, and their absence will raise concerns in some quarters.”

Olson said that U.S. efforts to secure the border will probably remain at their current levels and Mexico’s plan wouldn’t change that. He said, however, that proponents of tighter border security could use immigration as a bargaining chip when comprehensive reform is debated during the next Congress.

“There seems to be talk that in exchange for creating a pathway to legalization, either residency or citizenship, there may be more support for more border enforcement, so that might increase” he said.

Alonzo Peña, the former deputy director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement who also served as a Department of Homeland Security attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said if that is the case, the country should learn from current missteps.

“I hope they don’t continue down the path where they look at securing the border as just more boots on the ground, more Border Patrol, more equipment and more infrastructure,” he said.  “It is going to require something like a guest-worker program or something to reduce the clutter and chaos because … the economic migrant is still going to look for a better life. More boots on the ground — we are going to spend God knows how much more money.”

Like Ramirez, he said Mexico’s strategy indicates a priority on its citizens.

“I don’t think it’s a downside or a negative to say they are going to go after the people who are extorting or are kidnapping and murdering, if in fact the consequences are arrests, convictions and incarcerations that go with that strategy,” he said.

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