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Washington Should Use Border-Closing Leverage

A creative and proactive U.S. foreign policy could leverage the border to focus Mexico’s political leadership on our mutual security problems.
Large Migration Surge Crosses Rio Grande
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent actions to delay commercial trucks driving north demonstrated how such an approach can motivate Mexican authorities to do more to improve security on their side of the border.  

The need for Texas to act alone showed once again that official Washington has no effective policy for responding to any of the southern frontier’s security challenges, including the criminal cartels that cause rampant violence on both sides of the border. Americans should ask why Washington can borrow $40 billion for Ukraine aid overnight, or commit to 20 years of nation-building in Afghanistan, even while it is willing to lie down and accept our country’s vulnerable southern border as essentially lost.

The Biden administration’s current Mexico security plan, called the “Bicentennial Framework,” offers nothing new, includes no promise of real cooperation with Mexico, and completely ignores the ongoing border crisis that is the real center of activity in the bilateral relationship. 

A creative and proactive U.S. foreign policy, however, could leverage the border, à la Governor Abbott, to focus Mexico’s political leadership on our mutual security problems. In 1969, President Nixon’s Operation Intercept partially closed and delayed border crossings to win more counter-narcotics cooperation. In 1985, President Reagan acted similarly in response to the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. President Trump effectively used the threat of increasing tariffs to refocus Mexican President López Obrador (AMLO) on U.S. migration concerns.  

Now is the time for a flexible U.S. border-closing strategy to push our southern neighbor towards new cooperation: shutting down vital entry points, imposing tariffs, and restricting vehicles, pedestrians, and commerce in order to get Mexico City’s attention—only lifting restrictions to reward collaboration.  

Ensconced in their gargantuan metropolis far south of the border, leaders in Mexico City have no particular incentive to address pressing needs in their northern frontier as long as trade gets through. For them, breaking the border cartels is as equally low importance as capturing Pancho Villa was a century ago. When officials do speak about border issues, their emphasis is typically economic, seeking more opportunities for maquiladora industries or expanded trade infrastructure to transport more cargo north. 

Meanwhile, cartels and their agents act with impunity, spreading their corrupting cancer into all aspects of frontier life, including legitimate businesses, political parties, local governments, police, courts, and social institutions. Their reach is staggering: They censor local press and media; squeeze profits out of power, oil, and water companies; and even control human rights NGOs. This menace is loose across all Mexico, but cartels uniquely exploit the vulnerabilities of the border region to penetrate the U.S. homeland.

Mexico City could do much more, beginning by providing more security funding and ending the political favoritism that influences how resources are allocated. Besieged border-state governors are often forced to pay for federal responsibilities. On the Texas frontier, for example, the state of Coahuila is required to finance the bivouacking of the Mexican army along the Rio Bravo. The state of Nuevo Leon receives woefully inadequate federal assistance to secure the main highway between the major city of Monterrey and the U.S. border. The entire state of Tamaulipas, home to multiple strategic routes into Texas, is the classic example of a failed narco-state within Mexico: an unacceptable situation that Mexican federal authorities have tolerated for years, making only half-hearted efforts to reclaim the strategic trade city of Nuevo Laredo and protect its vital commercial roads leading directly to the Laredo, Texas, cargo bridges. 

Opponents may argue that a border-closing strategy would unfairly hurt American consumers and legitimate businesses, but they decline to grapple with the unsettling fact that Mexican cartels also profit from legal trade into the United States. The cartels are rightly branded “transnational criminal organizations” (TCOs) because they do much more than smuggle migrants and narcotics. Legitimate Mexican customs brokers and shippers, who transport around $1.7 billion in goods and products daily into the U.S. (40 percent of it on vehicles crossing bridges in Laredo, Texas), are forced to pay vast sums to TCOs for “protection and facilitation.” Nobody knows how much the TCOs extort out of lawful commerce, but it is surely comparable to what they earn by supplying Americans’ voracious illegal drug appetites.

When preparing your next batch of guacamole, ponder how those Mexican avocados actually arrived at your local market. If Americans rightly refuse goods assembled by slave labor, what should U.S. policy be in accepting products that are delivered to our markets only after paying off brutal TCOs?

When it comes to the region’s social and cultural life, cartel violence long ago effectively closed the border for Americans living on the frontier, including those with family on both sides, who simply stopped crossing into Mexico for fear of rampant crime. Indeed, the State Department officially urges all Americans to avoid Mexico’s frontier communities, from Matamoros to Ciudad Juarez to Tijuana. Americans now tend to fly directly to Mexico’s tourist attractions.

The 48 border crossing sites are overwhelmingly used only by Mexicans. No one seeks to impose undue hardship on the vast majority of our Mexican neighbors, who are simply trying to survive in a brutal region. However, their state and federal governments have abandoned them to border violence and lawlessness, as they must constantly navigate through cartels and corrupt officials. Pressure from Washington by way of strategic border closings would offer them the hope of future improvement.

Above all, we must convince Mexico to station significantly more military assets in vulnerable border areas. With over a quarter million military professionals, the Mexican army (SEDENA) and navy-marines (SEMAR), are the country’s best large-scale security force. The military is not a policing force, but it does provide critical internal security needed for officials to carry out their duties. 

No serious observer expects SEDENA and SEMAR to break the powerful cartels, but the military has been effective in putting TCO armed militants on the defensive. More Mexican military firepower is required to retake and hold numerous border transportation routes and strategic urban areas – to “take back the plaza” in Mexican parlance. 

Troop deployment, however, is inadequate for the mission. Currently, the vast majority of Mexico’s armed services, for political reasons, are garrisoned in the capital area, as Mexico’s elite leadership views the messy border as somewhere between a non-priority and dangerous backwater. Senior military officers seek to avoid a border tour of duty as not career-enhancing. A rigorous U.S. border-leverage policy could help establish a new political calculus in Mexico City.

Yes, Mexico struggles mightily with a dysfunctional criminal-law system and institutional corruption, significant weaknesses that undermine the country’s capacity to be a partner. But it can also deploy high-quality, well-trained government personnel. Mexico’s federal tax collection authority (SAT) and the national intelligence service (CNI, formerly CISEN) are top-notch professionals. The country’s diplomats are world class. When it comes to the frontier, however, Mexican state and local authorities are unreliable, and the federal border services need better leadership and training. All are vulnerable to cartel exploitation and intimidation. The military alone can best stabilize this operating environment.

A border-closing strategy should push for more U.S.-Mexican joint security operations along the frontier, which currently are very rare. Lack of mutual trust and corruption are of course impediments to overcome, but the Mexican military can be an effective partner. Washington needs to persuade a reluctant AMLO that such collaboration is fundamental for the region to reduce the dominance of criminality.  

Other underutilized assets are the five U.S. border consulates located in Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros. These diplomatic facilities have been modernized and would provide excellent forward cooperation platforms; yet without sufficient Mexican military troops to secure these border cities, the operating environments are too dangerous. Instead of being effective platforms for law enforcement collaboration, the consulates serve mainly to process visas for travelers, a Mexican priority that does nothing to promote security. 

In developing an effective border-closing strategy, we must guard against its reduction by the State Department and DHS to the much-ballyhooed “21st Century Border” program, which focuses on high-tech tools to check, search, and clear commercial cargo and travelers. This technology has its place, but it should not distract from a policy of directly engaging the Mexican leadership to deploy reliable armed forces and security personnel. 

On the U.S. side, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the daunting task of checking both cargo and travelers, and the agency does admirable work despite Washington’s weak leadership. A few years ago, State and DHS pulled back from a pilot U.S.-Mexican initiative to station armed CBP officers on the south side of the border to expedite cargo checks, because Mexico City refused to dedicate security forces to protect the pre-check zones from cartel interference. A U.S. border-leverage strategy would likely have turned around Mexico City’s short-sighted unwillingness to act in its own national interest.

Mexican officials constantly tell Washington that their biggest border-security request is to stop the flow of U.S.-made weapons moving south. It is the Mexican version of our complaint about narcotics and illegal migrants. Interdicting these weapons requires better border vigilance. Perhaps deft U.S. border-closing diplomacy might just be better received in Mexico City than its critics think. 

A flexible border-closing policy is more effective and less costly than building a wall. There are certainly frontier areas where physical barriers have been or would be needed impediments to clandestine crossings, but making the wall the heart of our Mexico security engagement is a Maginot Line strategy that surrenders the initiative to our enemies. 

U.S. national security deserves not a bunker mentality but an active forward defense, not nation-building, but a realpolitik that persuades our southern neighbor to better mobilize, commit resources, and field its best security personnel at the border. Yes, Mexico is a very difficult dance partner for Uncle Sam, but smart diplomacy can bring more out of her.

Phillip Linderman, a retired career diplomat, served as U.S. Consul General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, from 2015-18.