We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the nineteenth in the series.

Earlier this year, American diplomats in Mexico experienced first-hand the fluid nature of Central American borderlands. Following a series of security conferences—one in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss measures to more effectively police Mexico’s northern border, and a second in Tapachula, Mexico, to analyze security operations in the country’s southern flank—US officials decided to visit both borders themselves to gain familiarity with the flourishing arms trade that pours through each.

They were shocked by what they saw. The cable reports that

our visit to three border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico in Chiapas revealed neither country presently works seriously to enforce these laws.

At the first border crossing in Talisman, Chiapas, the conference participants witnessed almost as many individuals crossing the border illegally as legally. Immigration officials conjectured that individuals crossing illegally under the bridge were either visiting family members on the other side of border or engaging in informal commerce. Although the delegation did not have an opportunity to talk with any of the individuals crossing under the bridge at the border, it appeared the majority were carrying what appeared to be personal belongings rather than items of commerce.

The American observers were assured that though border traffic was largely allowed to flow freely and that immigration officers were maintaining a secure frontier, US embassy staff weren’t buying it.

. . . their explanations highlighted serious procedural inconsistencies that undermine effective controls. While border officials inspect 100 percent of the individuals and cars crossing the bridge legally, the data collected is stored in a local database that is not connected to federal or international criminal databases. Border officials are also hampered by their lack of access to national registries that would allow them to determine if the individuals crossing are on any criminal or terrorist watchlists.

Part of the problem is simply Mexican immigration law which

allows individuals to cross the border with an “original” identification document but does not prescribe what constitutes an “original” document. As long as the individual agrees to confine one’s visit to the state of Chiapas and return to Guatemala after an undefined period of time, one is granted admission to the country.

But the bigger issue is resources. The cable highlights the stark differences between American capabilities at the border and those of their Mexican counterparts across the way.

While there are 30,000 U.S. CBP officers on the 1,926 mile Mexican/U.S. border, only 125 Mexican immigration officials monitor the 577 mile border with Guatemala. Mexican immigration officials repeatedly confirmed that they do not have the manpower or resources to direct efforts effectively along the southern border.

American diplomatic staff visited another border crossing as well, this time at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most densely trafficked point between Mexico and Guatemala.

Border officials estimated that on a daily basis 95% of all exports, 350-400 shipments; and 26% of all imports, flow through these border crossings to and from Central America. Additionally, 80-100 carloads of visitors pass through the border on a daily basis.

Here, American officials were impressed by the inspection tools immigration officials had at their disposal, but concerned by what they observed to be inconsistency in the use of this

equipment to check the cabs of trucks and there is no revealed coordinated approach between Mexico and Guatemala to share information that would reduce crossing times and avoid duplicative inspections, as, for example, is being done at certain places in the Mexican-U.S. border.

Eventually, the cable gets around to addressing the heart of Mexico’s weaknesses in securing its territory—a theme that surfaces repeatedly in all discussions of the country’s problems: tensions between Mexico’s state and federal levels. At the conference in Tapachula,

The lack of coordination between federal and state officials became apparent when a representative from the Chiapas State Attorney General’s Office complained that his state does not receive any information from the federal authorities and has no input or visibility in the federal process. While the state representative acknowledged a common perception of corruption at the state level, he argued it was counterproductive and illogical to exclude them from the process. Other participants recognized an acceptable process for intelligence collection, but complained about inadequate dissemination of actionable information and insufficient formal mechanisms for sharing collected information.

As all conferences do, the gathering at Tapachula ended with hollow promises from all sides to make efforts at ameliorating common problems moving forward.

The Americans’ shock at what they saw at the Mexican/Guatemalan border would not be shared by anyone with experience travelling by land through Central and South America. What’s curious about this cable, however, is the almost complete absence of consideration given to Guatemala. While Mexico surely needs to resolve internal conflicts between its different layers of security agencies to produce more effective results, the bigger issues reside in Guatemala. As former Costa Rican vice-president Kevin Casas-Zamora has argued—correctly in my estimation—Guatemala’s dire condition presents significant challenges in region-wide efforts to battle thriving organized crime.

The thick unpopulated forests of Petén, in Northern Guatemala, offer a haven to drug trafficking activities, often carried out under the complacent gaze, when not the active participation, of the only institution with effective presence throughout the Guatemalan territory: a military establishment riddled with corruption. Indeed, outside the military, the Guatemalan state is a feeble entity by almost any indicator. Tax revenue in the country stands at 12 percent of GDP, one of lowest figures in Latin America…

The weakness of the state, the pervasive violence, the widespread corruption, and the country’s strategic location for drug trafficking are creating a very dangerous cocktail. Moreover, the prognosis is not favorable. The situation on the ground in Central America is bound to deteriorate if the offensive of the Mexican government against the drug cartels succeeds in reclaiming control over Northern Mexico for the state. Evidence of increased activity by Mexican crime syndicates, including turf wars between them, is rife throughout Central America these days. The big difference, of course, is that the capacities of the Central American states, and of the Guatemalan state in particular, to enforce the law and exert effective control over their territory are well below those of Mexico and certainly below what is needed to face up to the dire security challenge that is being foisted upon them.

It’s odd then that the cable chooses to present the border issue in near zero-sum terms, with an almost exclusive emphasis on Mexico’s troubles. It’s also strange that, given US criticism of Mexico for not sharing information with its partners to the south, diplomatic staff responsible for disseminating sensitive information about Mexico with concerned parties throughout the State Department, did not see fit to share this cable with the embassy in Guatemala City.

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