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North American security perimeter: Table for three?

Victoria M. Osuna


Photo: Wikimedia Commons; Gingrey House page.
The U.S. border fence near El Paso.

An article by Steven Chase published in the Globe and Mail on Dec. 8, 2010, which reported that Canada and the United States were negotiating the terms of a North American “security perimeter,” has reopened the debate on the need for trilateral involvement regarding border issues. Despite the fact that these talks have remained bilateral to date, one lingering question remains: Should Mexico be eventually included in talks regarding the security perimeter, in keeping with principles of free trade? Of course, Mexico’s participation in the cross-border co-operation debate is desirable; nevertheless, the idea of Mexico occupying a seat at the negotiations table is complex due to the characteristics of its northern border as well as the rise in violence within the country.

Historically, the word “border” has had two distinct interpretations in North America. To the North, Canada and the U.S. share an 8,891-kilometre border which, until Sept. 11, 2001 was renowned for being the world’s longest unprotected border. This was due to the fact that both countries had always viewed their shared border as a boundary zone not unlike the often-tenuous divisions that exist between the properties of good neighbours. In contrast, to the South, the entire length of the 3,169 kilometres shared by the United States and Mexico has, since the 1970s, constituted a real border characterized by strict controls implemented by both governments. The situation is such that both the U.S. and Mexico have defined the border line as a sort of fence whose purpose is not only to divide, but also to prevent the entry of foreigners.

Although the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 brought about significant transformations in the region and made improved co-ordination to facilitate the flow of goods and people necessary, the conceptualization and management of intra-regional borders did not change to a great extent. It was not until 2001, when the U.S. government closed the country’s border crossings for several hours in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, that the situation changed. The U.S. government’s response made it clear that ensuring the security of its borders was a top priority, and that Mexico and Canada would have to forge close ties with Washington to participate in the defence of their own borders if they wish to maintain prioritized access to the U.S. market.

Since then, the idea of creating a North American security perimeter —which would involve policy harmonization to monitor the movement of people and goods within NAFTA territory— has gained importance in the regional debate. The logic of trade integration would suggest that the best means of reconciling the contradictory notions of free trade and security lies in the implementation of a trilateral co-operation mechanism. However, negative perceptions regarding the border with Mexico, along with the violent climate that the country is experiencing, constitute two obstacles that make Mexico’s incorporation into such a mechanism problematic.

As for the complex nature of the southern border, it should be noted that the situation has always been the object of strict surveillance on the part of the U.S. government through the Border Patrol, and that the level of surveillance was heightened in 2010 with the involvement of the National Guard in defence duties in the border region. This particular emphasis on the southern border is due to the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States via the Mexican border every day, and whose increase in numbers has required the adoption of radical measures. Given these circumstances, the U.S. Senate approved, in 2006, the construction of a wall along the border of more than 600 kilometres in length and the implementation of a virtual high-tech fence. This decision confirmed the vision of the southern border as a true border that is both physically closed and conceptually inflexible.

As for the climate of violence in Mexico, the situation has worsened as a consequence of the “war on organized crime” declared by President Felipe Calderón when he took office near the end of 2006. One need only examine the Jan. 12, 2010 figures released by Alejandro Poiré, technical secretary of the National Security Council, regarding homicides linked to drug trafficking and fighting organized crime: between December 2006 and 2010, there were a total of 34,612 reported homicides, of which nearly 40 per cent occurred in the border region. Not surprisingly, this surge in violence is cause for concern at the White House. Despite the fact that the Mexican army is patrolling the country’s streets to ensure the safety of the population, in reality the country’s government appears to have lost control of the situation along its border.

This climate of blatant violence has altered the order of priorities in the bilateral border agenda. While it is true that surveillance has been increased since 2001 as part of the war on terror, it must also be acknowledged that the deployment of the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexican border coincided with the beginning of the wave of violence that has hit Mexico. This situation has shown that, for the first time, the problem of illegal immigration has temporarily taken a back seat in importance, since the issue of greatest concern for the United States is currently that of preventing violence from crossing the border at all costs.

What, then, of Mexico’s eventual inclusion in talks on the North American security perimeter? Although Mexico’s participation is desirable, it appears that as long as the Mexican government is unable to solve the problems of internal violence and insecurity —stemming from a failing social system rooted in corruption— the possibility of including Mexico as the third party at the table is far from reality. Although it would be impossible to deny the importance of Mexico’s role as a critical actor in North American cross-border co-operation, the only possible short-term scenario would be to keep the country on the fringes of these talks. Unfortunately, such a move would certainly constitute a step backward in the North American integration process.

Victoria M. Osuna is associate researcher with the Chaire de recherche du Canada en politiques étrangère et de défense canadiennes (Canada Research Chair in Canadian Foreign and Defence Policy) at Université du Québec à Montréal.

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