TAY MESA CROSSING – Newly appointed U.S. border czar Alan Bersin delivered a surprising message during his debut appearance near the border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana: Don’t just blame Mexico for the smuggling of illegal drugs into the United States.
Standing behind enormous red-bound bales of seized marijuana piled higher than him, Bersin delivered an unprecedented acknowledgement, both of Mexico’s best efforts to stop trafficking and U.S. guilt for being part of the problem.
“One major new difference,” he told reporters, gathered at this busy crossing a few kilometres south of San Diego, “is the recognition by the government of Mexico that drug trafficking is a national security threat and (there’s a) need to build honest, reliable law enforcement and an honest judiciary.”
That evolution, he stressed, “represents a departure from all past Mexican history.”
Bersin spoke at the Pacific side of a highly militarized border – with a fence planned for a third of the 3,169-kilometre route – that stretches to the Gulf of Mexico in the east. Helicopters searching for smugglers – of drugs and people – buzzed overhead and, a few hundred metres away at the actual Otay Mesa crossing, border agents with drug-sniffing dogs stopped and searched vehicles.
But it wasn’t simply the verbal message to Mexico that’s changed. Even the optics of the news conference were different.
There were, as usual, drugs on display, in this case the bales of marijuana seized headed north out of Mexico and displayed by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents.
What was different, however, was the sample of weapons, including an AK-47, M-10, M-4, sawed-off shotgun and Winchester bolt-action hunting rifle, as well as a package of about $120,000 in U.S. dollars – all seized while headed in the other direction, south into Mexico.
The point, said Bersin, is that while drugs go north, cash and guns mainly flow south from the United States into Mexico. In fact, 90 per cent of the weapons seized in Mexico originate in the United States.
“We bear a co-responsibility for issues … drug trafficking and illegal smuggling,” said Bersin, adding “problems in both cultures” lead to the deeper issues that fuel the success of the drug cartels and trafficking.
U.S. officials didn’t emphasize those issues in the past, he said, “but we’re emphasizing them now in the recognition we share a joint problem.”
At his Otay Mesa news conference last month – only his second border appearance (after an El Paso-Juarez crossing) since his appointment earlier this year – Bersin played point man for the gentler public approach toward Mexico of President Barack Obama and key officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano (Bersin’s boss).
It’s an attempt to repair a dysfunctional relationship between the two governments by ending two decades of U.S. government attacks on Mexico over drugs that, according to the evidence, failed to stop the tide of illegal narcotics.
Bersin, 62, himself participated in that hard line during his 1990s term as border czar under Democrat Bill Clinton. A former Harvard linebacker and Rhodes scholar, he focused on the smuggling of illegals with “Project Gatekeeper” to the point he was blamed for a surge in Mexicans dying in the desert. Shouted a Latino activist at him: “You represent death to us.”
No longer, even though Bersin met reporters during a period of growing fears in the United States over narco-war carnage spilling across the border. U.S. officials say Mexican drug cartels have infiltrated 230 American cities, with increasing drug consumption and bloodshed.
But at Otay Mesa, there was no mention of foot-dragging by Mexico. He didn’t mention, for example, the Mexican government hasn’t appointed a counterpart to Bersin, or replaced the last head of its drug enforcement agency.
In November 2008, Noe Ramirez, who’d resigned earlier in the year from an elite crime-fighting unit, was arrested and charged with links to the drug cartels.
Instead, Bersin lavished praise on President Felipe Calderon and the “war on drugs” declaration he made after his 2006 inauguration. Evidence of success, said Bersin, can be seen in “the violence unleashed between law enforcement agencies, the military and cartel foot soldiers south of the border.
“This is real, it’s not a cosmetic change on the part of President Calderon,” he said. “It’s shown in the loss of life of 6,000 people south of the border in 2008.”
Added Bersin: “It behooves us to seize” the opportunity to praise the “courageous” actions taken by Mexico’s national leader.
Some critics are skeptical of the U.S. approach.
“It makes perfect sense they would be praising Mexico,” said University of Toronto political scientist Judith Teichman, who’s researching Mexican drug trafficking. She said the U.S. has always pushed for Latin American countries to hit hard at drug production, without seriously addressing the social problems that are the root cause. “This is the way they think they will fix the problem, but they won’t.”
Bersin seems to agree society must change.
In the United States, he said, “it took a generation (to have) an honest police force and honest judiciary (in place) across this country.”
Mexico will make the same progress, he said, but “it will take time. We understand this, and so do the Mexicans.”
– Article from The Toronto Star on May 30, 2009