War on terror improves U.S.-Mexico ties

Practical necessity brings cooperation on security, Bush immigration reform

March 01, 2004|By R. Alonso-Zaldivar | R. Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY - When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge stepped on the stage for a news conference recently, he faced a blunt reminder of the troubled history of U.S.-Mexican relations - rows of faded Mexican battle flags, including one flown by Francisco "Pancho" Villa, the outlaw revolutionary who raided New Mexico.

Yet Ridge's joint appearance with his Mexican counterpart, Interior Minister Santiago Creel, reflected an unexpected dividend in the war on terror: an improvement in Washington's relations with its southern neighbor. On issues ranging from screening airline passengers to sharing intelligence at the border, the United States is gaining greater cooperation from the Mexican government.

And Mexico, in turn, has seen the Bush administration embrace its top priority - reform of U.S. immigration laws - in part because of a growing network of relationships between Ridge, Creel and senior aides.

The Homeland Security Department has "developed a businesslike way of dealing with Mexico that has never existed before," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "Any progress that has been made during the past year and a half in relations with Mexico has been made in the relationship between Ridge and Santiago Creel."

Collaboration between the two security officials is credited with speeding a rapprochement between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, after Fox's opposition to the Iraq war irked Bush. Fox is to visit Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, this weekend.

In announcing immigration reforms, Bush embraced Ridge's reasoning that the United States would be more secure if millions of illegal immigrants identified themselves to the government in exchange for work permits. Creel and other Mexican officials had been making that argument for months.

What lies behind the unforeseen link between homeland security and better relations with Mexico is not idealism or ideology but practical necessity.

U.S. officials fear that the 1,951-mile border with Mexico could become an entry point for terrorists, just as it has been for drugs and migrants. Mexican officials worry that if terrorists were to use their country as a springboard for an attack, the backlash from the United States could cripple their economy and impede travel of their citizens who work in the north and send home badly needed money.

What aides to Ridge call "the convergence of interests" has created a kind of negotiating parity and commonality between the countries that has often been missing in the past.

Where previously one side could ignore the other's views, that is not so true today. As a result, officials at all levels of the two governments feel increased pressure to solve problems and reach accommodations.

"Without doubt, security is an area that has allowed us to draw closer," Creel told Televisa, a Mexican network. "All of this is creating a new atmosphere, a different moment that we should try to take advantage of."

The Homeland Security Department is involved with Mexico on a broader range of issues than perhaps any other branch of the U.S. government, from clearing shipments of Mexican produce to issuing green cards to rescuing migrants who run out of water in the desert.

"We've got a huge portfolio," Ridge said. "We worry about people dying in the desert. We worry about getting commerce across the border. We worry about sharing information on people flying commercial aircraft in and out of both countries. The issues that we are dealing with are very much at the heart of the relationship."

The fruits of this cooperation can be seen in several areas:

Ridge and Creel signed a tentative agreement recently allowing migrants caught illegally crossing the border to be returned to their home regions, a long-sought U.S. goal.

A secure telephone - the only such hot line in the Western hemisphere - has just been installed linking the two officials.

And before Ridge tells the American public of a change in the U.S. threat level, he notifies two foreign governments - Canada and Mexico.

While the United States has a long history of working closely with Canada on security matters, mistrust has hindered cooperation with Mexico. Mexican officials have often perceived American counterparts as overbearing, while U.S. officials have been frustrated by what they see as Mexican authorities' tendency to evade problems rather than confront them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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