Home Political Science & Law Journal Issue Article


2006/4 (No 123)

  • Pages : 236
  • ISBN : 9782707150035
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.123.0164
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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This paper asks whether the new Homeland Security policy of the United States, which was designed in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, jeopardizes Mexico’s newly acquired status as part of North America. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers and one of the Pentagon’s five sides also destroyed an American geopolitical representation that was always present in its security structure, namely the quasi-insular protection afforded by two great oceans and two friendly neighboring countries, namely Canada and Mexico. The National Strategy for Homeland Security proposed by the White House in 2002 clearly refers to this fundamental change. This new insularity paved the way for a new representation contained in the very neologism “Homeland Security,” a concept in which the territory of the American Union is viewed as a home under assault that needs to be defended, a terminological choice that is clearly not arbitrary.


Given that in this vision, the United States was seeking to barricade itself off in order to avoid a possible terrorist attack, this new conception of territory was prejudicial to the interests of its two neighbors. On the face of it, “Fortress America,” as it was called, was contrary to the integration policies that were in the process of being set up in North American since the 1990s as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In Mexico’s case, being locked out of its principal market directly harmed its export-oriented current model of development.


In the days following September 11, 2001, it was possible to measure the nefarious consequences that such a policy could have for the three partners (Mexico, the United States, and Canada). Over those few days, the new security measures put in place at the border painted a glum prospect for the region’s economic region, affecting three-way cooperation in a host of sectors, and in particular the very important area of security itself.


Since the implementation of the new policy, an alternative has been sought to the “Fortress America” representation in order to take into account the very profound—albeit asymmetrical—inter-dependence between the three countries in the North American free trade zone. Without such an alternative, not only would the economies of the three countries be affected by new modes of border control, but also the very objectives of the security of the United States could be compromised. As Peter Andreas has pointed out, the major difficulty in stopping terrorists from entering North American territory lies in the fact that they can make use of the same technological resources and routes as those used by these highly interdependent economies. To fight terrorism without impeding the legal flow of goods and services through the measures implemented, the economy and security should no longer be disassociated from each other (Andreas 2003).


In 2002, the concept of a North American Security Perimeter was presented as an alternative to Fortress America and as a compromise between the new Homeland Security policy and the need to keep borders open to the trade and people who move freely and legally within the NAFTA zone. This new stage in regional integration seeks to create an outer common border for Canada, the United States, and Mexico within which Canada and Mexico commit to implementing the security policy by shifting border controls up to cover the entire Northern Hemisphere.


The Mexican government not only subscribes to this construction but also supports it ardently, considering that this strategy is useful for consolidating Mexico’s position within North America. As the (then) Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castañeda strongly argued, Mexico’s position was to “advance as far as possible in making [security issues] continent-wide.” Some even saw September 11, 2001 as “a historic opportunity for rethinking anti-Americanism in Mexico and the entire hemisphere” (Valdés-Ugalde 2002,). As a result, Southern Mexico acquired a new strategic role. With the only land border (with Guatemala and Belize) along the North American security perimeter, the region is also home to the largest concentration of Mexico’s energy resources. In that sense, control of this territory by Mexico is essential in preserving the North American energy security policy.


To explain the consequences of this fundamental change, it is essential first of all to understand how September 11 jeopardized the geopolitical shift undertaken by the Mexican government and how, with the setting up of the security perimeter, Mexico is hoping to shift the pressure on its northern border to its southern border in the name of the doctrine of shared responsibility.

Mexico’s Geopolitical Shift


Clearly, Mexico belongs to two territories: North America and Latin America. Moreover, for Mexicans, there is no doubt that Mexico is the Number Three country in North America, as is in fact taught in schools, following the official curriculum. Paradoxically, however, as a member of NAFTA, Mexico’s North American identity was strengthened as a result of the territorial losses inflicted on the country by the United States during the nineteenth century. This accentuated the feeling that Mexico belonged to North America as it continuously fixed its gaze on the territories it had lost. Meanwhile, the country fully identifies with the set of countries coming under the term “Latin America,” for historically and culturally obvious reasons, among them, language, ethnicity, colonization, indigenous culture, and the Catholic religion. By playing off these representations, Mexico was able to redefine—though not without tensions—belonging to one or the other of the two territories of which it is part.


Thus it was that during the six-year presidencies of Luís Echeverría Álvarez (1970–1976) and José López Portillo (1976–1982) that the Mexican government built what was clearly a Latin American discourse attuned to the climate of the times, in which it defined itself as an unaligned, Third World country of the South. This is evidenced by the very active foreign policy the country followed in Latin America in support of people’s right to self-determination, demonstrating solidarity for the government of Salvador Allende in Chile and Fidel Castro in Cuba, in open opposition to the United States’ policy in the region. As Fidel Castro argued in 1980:


Mexico has been one of the most determined standard-bearers in fighting for a new world economic order. Mexico is and remains the representative of the interests of people who form the so-called Third World. Within Latin American and the Caribbean, Mexico is the sincere friend of all our peoples and the ardent defender of their interests, occupying as it does a stretch several thousand kilometer-long on the edge of the United States. That is why, not only because of its international policy but also of its geography, Mexico is on the front line of defending the sovereignty and interests of our peoples.


In its foreign policy, Mexico was putting all its efforts into defining itself as a country with a greater bond with its neighbors to the South than those to the North. For Mexico, belonging to the Third World was a point of pride, and in the geopolitical representations of the times, it did not refer to itself as belonging to North America.


At the end of the 1980s, a new political elite trained mostly in US universities joined the political establishment, a shift that profoundly transformed Mexico’s relationship with countries both to the North (Canada and the United States) and to the South (Central and South America). Little by little and as part of an ever deepening process, Mexico’s government decided to set aside developmental theories and stop resisting the North and instead become part of it.


This explains why one of the singular effects of the general abandonment of ECLAC [1]  Economic Commission for Latin America and the Cari...[1] theories in Latin American was that in Mexico, the acceptance of the liberal economic model occurred along with a Latin American shift toward North America. This move was a conscious act aimed at tying Mexico’s fate to a more economically effective region, to which it already belonged de facto if not de jure, thereby offering a much higher level of development.


I do not propose to re-examine here how the free trade agreement was put in place. Let us simply remember that this shift happened at the end of the Cold War and at the start of the “Economic War.” This had two consequences for the contribution made by Mexico’s rapprochement with North America.


First, the United States’ assertion of itself as the only superpower in the world meant that for Mexico as well as many other nations, it was more difficult to reach the necessary equilibrium for counterbalancing the strength of the “colossus of the North.” In any event, although Mexico largely depended at that time on the US market, year after year, the lack of an institutional framework was subjecting customs’ agreements to the highs and lows of American domestic policy. Second, in the representation of the bloc-led “Economic war” that was emerging as a substitute to the Cold War, the example of the European Union made the negotiation of a free trade agreement between the three countries of North America an interesting proposition. It was not by chance that the Maastricht Treaty went into effect in November 1993 and NAFTA only two months later (Salinas de Gortari 2000). Nevertheless, although regional economic integration was the basis of this re-alignment of Mexico vis-à-vis North America, it cannot be reduced solely to a trade agreement.


As regards strategic rapprochement, integration led the Mexican military to change its warfare manuals, which, as late as the 1980s, represented the United States as the “natural enemy” of Mexico (Schulz 1997). Militarily, the North ceased being considered a threat, and this opened the way to cooperation in defense matters, which today is manifested in the context of creating a security perimeter. Undoubtedly, the most useful lever in bringing about this change was the new Mexican representation of itself as a country of migrants to the United States. Having been excluded from public discourse up to that point, the migration issue then took on fundamental importance as part of relations between the two countries as the Mexican government started to pointedly emphasize this issue in its discourse. In under a decade, migrants stopped being viewed as traitors and were transformed into national heroes. The term “Mexican diaspora” even came to be used to blur the line separating Mexicans from Mexican-Americans.


On April 9, 1989 the “Agreement fostering actions to improve federal public services at the borders, maritime ports, and international airports of the country” was signed, the fruit of the first major round of negotiation between the Mexican Federal government and representatives of both Mexico and the Mexican-American community in the United States. The agreement gave rise to what is known today as the Paisano Program, [2]  The term paisano has two meanings: fellow citizen,...[2] designed to gradually eliminate “all forms of violence, extortion, theft, corruption, and arrogance exercised by government officials in various federal administrations vis-à-vis their fellow citizens when they return home.” This program, which remains in effect, is one of the permanent channels of dialogue between the Mexican government and its diaspora. The rapprochement between the Mexican government and Mexicans living in the United States was made official in the 1994–2000 National Development Plan that stated for the first time that the “Mexican nation extends beyond the borders marking out its territory.”


The 1998 constitutional reform continued along the path of reconnection of the Mexican-American community with other Mexicans. The new wording of Article 30 of the Constitution stated that from then on, obtaining a new nationality would not entail loss of Mexican nationality. Moreover, this right to a dual nationality would apply through the first generation of Mexicans (Mexican-Americans) born in the United States. In addition, two major actions by the Fox administration aimed at further tightening these bonds: the creation of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad in 2003, and the 2005 law reform that allowed Mexicans residing outside of Mexico to vote.


Locally, change was even more significant. In Zacatecas State, migrants have been represented since 2003 in the local legislature by two dedicated representatives elected by residents from the community residing in the United States. This is hardly surprising as “currently, the Zacatecas migrant clubs are the most significant social and political organization Mexicans have created abroad” (Moctezuma 2004). As Faret (2006) notes, these clubs have considerable influence in their home communities. As the defense of the rights of Mexicans in the United States created no political disputes, it has become the government’s favorite tool for moving North American integration forward.


Nevertheless, this new Mexican sense of belonging to North America did not gain the unanimous support of all of the country’s political forces. However, it did give rise to lively debates between the “pro-Latin American left,” represented by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática—PRD), the nationalist party of the left created after the break-up of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI) in 1988, and the “pro-Americans,” who were members of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional—PAN), a political party the conservative wing of the US Republican Party perceives as being its true counterpart in Mexico, at least ideologically.


The case of the PRI (the party that governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and harks back to the Mexican Revolution) merits a further look given that the conflict is ongoing. This party, which was seen in earlier times as an all-powerful force, is today sharply divided into two groups, each representing an opposite model of development and a contradictory vision of Mexico’s geographic position. The technocrat wing, to which former presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994–2000) belonged and which today is represented by two Northern Mexico governors (Natividad González and Eduardo Bours) is clearly pro-American, while the nationalist wing zealously guards the country’s sovereignty against any interference by the United States, with former Governors Manuel Barlett Diaz of Puebla and José Murat Casab of Oaxaca as its most visible spokespersons. This divide regularly emerges whenever the Mexican government aligns its foreign policy on Latin America with that of the United States. Let us examine two examples.


During the six-year term of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994–2000), Mexico’s first NAFTA-era president, the government ended its “historic relationship” with Cuba. This cooling off of relations between the two countries caused Fidel Castro to comment in December 1998 that Mexico has decided to “become a member of the rich people’s club” to the detriment of its bonds with Latin America, and that “the children of Mexico knew more about Mickey Mouse than about the heroes of the homeland” (in reference to the United States’ cultural imperialism regarding Mexico). For Castro, “Mexico was trading poor neighbors for rich ones.”


More recently, during the 4th Summit of the Americas in November 2005 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, President Fox’s administration participated in a debate with the host country and Venezuela, in which the Mexican delegation came out strongly in favor of a Latin America Free-Trade Zone (LAFTZ), a project supported by the White House for the creation of a vast, NAFTA-style free trade zone in the Americas.


The Mexican left accused the government of being a traitor to the homeland (entreguista) each time it linked its foreign policy to that of the United States. For its part, the right responded in a speech in which the left was described as backward-looking, populist and against any modernization. This opposition was also clear in the geographic voting patterns in the July 2006 election, with a majority in the north of the country voting for the PAN while the PRD enjoyed a clear victory in the South.


It must be said, however, that this highly polemical alliance was far from being clear cut. Internationally, Mexico supported anti-American positions on various occasions. With regard to the “war on terror,” Mexico, in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, opposed armed intervention in Iraq in 2003. In addition, when Mexico approved the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it did not grant the exception status the United States was seeking of all signatories to the statute (which the US itself did not sign) to stop US soldiers being tried for war crimes. However, apart from these exceptions, which had no direct bearing on the politics of the hemisphere, all Mexican administrations since NAFTA have followed policies favoring rapprochement and making belonging to North America irreversible.


However, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upset Mexico’s definitive sense of belonging to North America due to the increase in security measures at the border. This called for an adjustment of Mexican political integration so that the new security requirements of the United States could be taken into account.

September 11 and “Fortress America”


In the days immediately following the tragic events of September 2001 in the United States, security could have become a new kind of obstacle to the movement of people, goods, and services between Mexico and the United States, thereby recreating barriers the free-trade treaty sought to eliminate. In the chaotic and disorganized climate that was evident following the terrorist attacks, strengthened security at border crossings almost paralyzed border operations. Although the border was never closed, the estimated crossing time of five minutes per person stretched to more than five hours, making the border virtually impassable, while for trucks, waiting time rose to over 24 hours. People living in border areas felt the negative economic effects of the blocked border more than others. For example, the city of San Diego (California) declared an “economic crisis situation” due to the sharp drop in revenues in its business sector, which is highly dependent on Mexican customers. On the Mexican side, the effects were just as severe.


Likewise, industry was severely affected. NAFTA strengthened the “just-in-time” production system, in which reduced inventory and delivery timeframes are essential to smooth production. In the days following the September 11 attacks, this became impossible, and it was the reason why Ford announced that it was shutting down five plants in the US to make up for the losses brought on by the paralysis at US borders. Very quickly, these consequences forced the US government to reconsider rigid border controls. However, this short time span was enough to lead to the view that the new US crusade against Islamic extremists could end up strangling NAFTA and pushing Mexico out of North America once again.


For Mexico, terrorism did not represent a direct threat. In contrast, the new fear of terrorism of its neighbor risked jeopardizing its national interest. For the Fox administration, the choice with regard to the Homeland Security policy was clear: if North America was to build walls, it was better to be inside than outside. September 11 had dashed all hopes the Fox administration had of negotiating a migration agreement with the United States. The aim of the agreement was to obtain recognition of the right of residence for Mexicans already living in the United States and to set up a program that would give Mexicans the right to work legally in the United States on a temporary basis. However, the terrorist attacks hardened the US position and led to a tightening of its immigration policy, leaving the Mexican government able to negotiate the security issue only, the only one that interested United States.


For the United States, integrating Mexico into its Homeland Security policy entailed numerous benefits. According to Stephen E. Flynn, the unilateral measures implemented by the United States to make the border more secure was directly opposed to cooperation that was necessary between neighbors to ensure the rule of law in the border area. This chaotic situation could be taken advantage of by criminal networks, including terrorist ones. However, according to Flynn, a “North American security perimeter” negotiated between the three countries had three fundamental advantages: i) it would create “strategic depth” in response to the terrorist threat before it even got close to the border; ii) it would segment risks by making it easier for low-risk persons and goods to cross the border; and iii) it would perform targeted control over high-risk categories (Flynn, 2003).


The strategic depth Flynn discusses had already been negotiated as part of the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). This agreement transformed Mexico’s territory into a buffer zone aiming to thwart any threat against the United States before it reached the border. These two advantages for American security were the card the Fox administration decided to play to protect Mexico from a possible blocking of its border with the US. By discussing security, the US had to be kept at the negotiating table on a range of subjects, including the issue of migration (Benítez-Manaut, 2004).

The Southern Border of the North American Security Perimeter


In early 2002, the Department of Homeland Security began talks with representatives from Canada and Mexico to set up what is now known as the North American Security Perimeter. This may be defined as follows:


Implementing a common policy throughout North America for the purpose of creating an external common border for the continent that was stricter in terms of the movement of goods and persons coming from third countries. This should guarantee security in the region again external threats and ensure the simple and safe movement of goods and people coming from within the perimeter.

(Nieto Gómez, 2005)

A major report ordered by the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, the Council on Foreign Relations of the United States, and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives explain this as follows:


In particular, the three governments should strive toward a situation in which a terrorist trying to penetrate our borders will find it equally difficult to do so, no matter which country he elects to enter first. We believe that these measures should be extended to include a commitment to common approaches toward international negotiations on the global movement of people, cargo, and vessels. Like free trade a decade ago, a common security perimeter for North America is an ambitious but achievable goal that will require specific policy, statutory, and procedural changes in all three nations.

(Construcción de una Comunidad de América del Norte 2005)

The report concludes that this goal should be achieved by 2010 at the latest. The aim of the negotiation strategy chosen by the three countries was not to have a treaty ratified by their respective legislature. Rather, the negotiation of a series of agreements aiming to harmonize and coordinate their internal policies was the strategy of choice. This is why the creation of the perimeter is described less as a treaty than as a permanent mechanism that may entail going both forward and backward.


Within Mexican territory, the perimeter structure was implemented in two parts, which were presented to the public as being unconnected. The military part is set out in the Defense Department’s Sentinel Plan that is in direct contract with the US army’s Northern Command (NORTHCOM). According to Santiago Creel, Mexico’s Interior Minister in 2005, its objective is to “defend the country and its interests against any terrorist attack and avoid having our territory used either as a bridge by terrorists whose destination is other countries, mainly, the United States.” Meanwhile, the civil part is coordinated by the Public Policy Office of the Executive Branch, which is in charge of carrying out Mexican obligations that are part of the SPP.


One of the particularities of the North American security perimeter in terms of the other regional security mechanisms is that putting into place an external common border does not mean that internal national borders should disappear. To the contrary, a new geopolitical representation was implemented with regard to borders inside the perimeter, that is, an “intelligent border.” This new scheme should both ensure the security of the United States and secure legitimate bi-national trade. It is supposed to replace the traditional “flat” border by a border “in tiers,” which based on a high-tech system, is to be deployed in the territories of neighboring countries to monitor the exchange of goods and the movement of persons from their point of departure to their final destination.


It should not be forgotten that in addition to these intelligent internal borders created by the SPP, North America has only one land border, which is located at the border of Mexico with Guatemala and Belize. Thus, southern Mexico now officially becomes the southern border—in fact, the sole land border—of North America, or to use the expression of Francisco Alba and Paul Leite, “NAFTA’s front door.” This is why this region has strategic value essential to defending North America.

Homeland Security Starts at the Rio Suchiate


Homeland Security’s geopolitical representation has taken the place of the former, insular representation the United States had of itself. With the discovery that the defense of the United States could no longer be assured in the twenty-first century by an assumption of oceanic distance, the country reconsidered the role of its borders, which were henceforth to be at the heart of its security structure. In the debate on immigration that took place in the United States between March and May 2006, porous borders were constantly presented as a real danger to the country’s security as they had become the probable route terrorists groups would use to infiltrate the United States. Terrorism undoubtedly raised the fear level in American public opinion about the porosity of US borders by creating a direct link between the “war on terror” and border policy.


This discourse of fear jeopardized the interests of Mexicans and of Mexicans residing—illegally or illegally—in the United States. It gave anti-immigrant groups a new argument in support of their demands for a tightening border controls unilaterally by the United States. This argument is particularly dangerous in terms of public opinion as it appears to moderates to be more justified than other arguments put forth by the Far Right, xenophobes, and racists. To go against this discourse, the Mexican government proposed sharing responsibility for controlling flows of migrants going north from southern Mexico. It placed the principle of shared responsibility at the heart of its negotiations with the United States, with the migration issue being considered an issue common to all three countries, not a domestic issue in each of the three countries of North America. In doing so, Mexico was looking to be perceived as part of the solution, not as part of the problem.


The concept of shared responsibility had already been accepted in more recent studies favoring integration, not only with regard to the migration issue but also to security issues: “Threats such as terrorism, organized crime, and public insecurity are common threats, and therefore the object of shared responsibilities that demand an original, bi-national solution” (2005). Thus, this concept established in discourse a direct link between migration policy and continental security. In effect, Mexico was seeking to lock up its own porous border in its own name.


Until 2002, along the 1,100 kilometers of Mexico’s southern border, which consists largely of virgin forest, there were over 36 border crossing points, eight of which were authorized and under surveillance by at least one agency (migration, customs, police, the military, or public health). To change this situation, the southern border became the focus of the largest modernization program in its history. It involved the building of border stations and the modernization of existing ones as well as a significant increase in the number of personnel engaged in combatting illegal immigration through the recruitment of immigration agents and the use of federal and municipal police forces and the military in the fight against illegal immigration. It also involved technological and administrative modernization carried out with the support of the US government through the transfer of technology and the training of agents at the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración—INM).


Since 2004, the Mexican government has set up its own Integrated Migration Monitoring System (Sistema Integrado de Control Migratorio—SIOM), an efficient, modern, IT-based system for controlling entry, flows, deportations, naturalization and migration formalities. It is the Mexican version of the highly controversial US program known as “US-VISIT,” which operates at all the country’s entry points. Mexico is thus getting a reliable database which, it may be assumed, will enable it to know the exact migration status of foreigners who enter the country legally. By virtue of cooperation agreements, Mexico shares its information with US authorities. In addition, SIOM is meant to be applied at all Mexican border entry points, including the land entry points on the southern border. As a result, the US Department of Homeland Security is informed of any foreigner who enters Mexican territory legally to come to the United States even before that person reaches northern Mexico.


Furthermore, to combat the perceived chaos on Mexico’s southern border, the Sentinel Plan set up in 2003 strengthened the presence of the military and INM agents in the area between the southern border and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It should be noted that even if the current security structure in the southeast of the country is justified by Mexican participation in the continental security policy, it is in fact part of President Fox’s migration policy. In June 2001, during the negotiations on the migration agreement, the Fox administration proposed broader cooperation with the United States in the fight against migration from Central America. The newest element of the South Plan, as it was called at the time, was to use the area in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as a point where migration could be intercepted and controlled. In 2001, INM director Felipe de Jesús Preciado explained the position in this way:


Taking advantage of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, we installed our best elements there, our best structures, because you know what the southern border is, hundreds of kilometers of dense, virgin forest, and rivers where it is very hard to put down markers at every turn, and, in reality, that’s where a lot of undocumented people come in, and so, the strategy of the South Plan is to strengthen operations in the isthmus by taking advantage of this bottleneck.


This scheme has set up a kind of internal customs area in the isthmus to control the movement of undocumented Central Americans north of the southern border, and the Sentinel Plan was set up to pursue this objective. While the South Plan was strictly focused on migration, the Sentinel Plan is a security-focused structure emphasizing the strategic defense of Mexico against terrorism.


This policy puts Mexico in direct opposition to its southern neighbors, given that the country has become a buffer zone for US immigration policy. The result is a shift in US migration controls from the Rio Bravo (the Rio Grande to Americans) to the Rio Suchiate, which marks Mexico’s border with Guatemala, a change that transforms Mexican territory into a broadened US border and the isthmus area into a filter for migrants from Central America.


In just four years, Mexico more than doubled the number of undocumented persons it deported, from 110,000 in 2002 to 235,000 in 2005. Proportionally, the latest figures are higher than those for the US border patrol for the same period. In Mexico, this policy has been highly controversial. It was criticized by the left and human rights organizations as being an instrument of US expansionism, which is transforming southeastern Mexico into the United States’ most forward front. For others, it guarantees an isolationist structure that closes “Fortress North America” in on itself.

Map 1 - Mexico as a buffer zone

Finally, the low level of publicity given to the SPP must be underscored. If we compare the signing of NAFTA to the SPP, the latter went largely unnoticed even though the negotiation of this alliance represents the most significant creation of an institution in North America since 1994. For Mexico, it means a new conception of its own territory, one in which the Isthmus of Tehuantepec becomes part of the north-south division of the country.

Homeland Security and Energy Policy


Southern Mexico has fundamental strategic importance due in particular to the priority given to defending the Cantarell oil field, which is located in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a fundamental player in North America’s energy policy. Navigation in this area of the Gulf of Mexico is explicitly prohibited due to the 2001 terrorist attacks. From now on, the entire Campeche Sound and its offshore platforms are monitored continuously by the Mexican navy’s fleet based in the Gulf, which for the first time in its history must consider international terrorism as a threat to Mexico’s national security. This has transformed the strategic vision of the Mexican armed forces and fostered a rapprochement with the United States. For the Mexican navy, this means giving up its mistrust of the United States.


Every fortress should be capable of resisting a prolonged siege by relying solely on the resources it has within it, and the North American fortress is no exception. This is why the oilfields of Mexico’s southeast are so important to the United States’ energy policy. For this country, setting up a North American common energy market is essential to ensuring a secure, uninterrupted supply of hydrocarbons. In 2005, Mexico and Canada were the principal suppliers of oil to the United States (1.6 million barrels/day), followed by Saudi Arabia (1.5 million barrels/ day), Venezuela (1.3 million barrels/ day), and Nigeria (1 million barrels/ day).


According to Rosario Vargas, the United States needs three things from Mexico as part of the North American energy security policy: an opening up of the sector to international investment, guaranteed supply at times of energy crisis, and alignment with US oil diplomacy vis-à-vis OPEC producers (Vargas 2002). In addition to these three points drawn up in 2002, there is now a fourth point, namely increased protection of Mexico’s oil facilities considered to be “essential North American infrastructure.” During SPP negotiations, the three signatory countries committed to drawing up a list of essential infrastructure in order to create common protection plans in the event of an attack. The offshore platforms and the petrochemical industry in southern Mexico were identified as primary essential infrastructure targets within Mexican territory. This is due to their economic significance and to the negative impact a terrorist attack would have on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem.


It should also be noted that for Mexicans, the oil issue is not only an economic and energy policy question but also one that is strongly tied to national identity. The 1938 petroleum expropriation continues to be presented as an example of Mexico’s sovereign independence vis-à-vis major powers, and especially the United States. This alone explains why cooperation and coordination in North America in matters of energy are a taboo subject for many Mexicans. In fact, this sovereignty is written into the Mexican Constitution, which guarantees an oil model based on a state monopoly, strictly limiting the Mexican’s government margin for maneuver in any oil negotiations. Even during the NAFTA negotiations, the Mexican team clearly stated that Mexican oil belonged to Mexico and that the Mexican State is the only body authorized to prospect, extract, refine, store, distribute, and export oil and its derivatives. Mexican oil should thus not be the subject of any obligatory sales to NAFTA members. This is why, from the list of US demands in matters of energy, only the fourth, which referred to the protection of essential infrastructure made any headway. Regarding the three other points, the differences in viewpoint between the Mexican left and right on the subject of oil complicated the coordination the United States is expecting from the Mexicans. It seems almost impossible for the Mexican President, at least in the current situation, to pass a constitutional reform opening the Mexican oil market to private investment.


Paradoxically, this restrictive constitutional framework is the strongest driver of Mexican integration process vis-à-vis its neighbors to the south. In fact, this integration process has been explicitly agreed to by the United States in the form of the Mesoamerican Energy Integration Program (MIEP), which seeks to create a regional market for oil, natural gas, and electricity between Mexico, the countries of Central America, and Colombia. Among the largest projects is the construction of a refinery in Guatemala or Panama (the location has not yet been determined), which will have the capacity to refine up to 400,000 barrels a day of Mexican Maya-type oil. The refinery will be built solely by private investment through international tender put out by the Mexican Energy Department, with the government signing a sub-contracting (de maquila) agreement with the winning bidder. Mexico will thus be able to increase its refining capacity, forgo the gasoline imports that today supply its domestic market, and to sell refined products at market prices on the international market.


In addition, Mexico will also strengthen its participation in the MIEP countries’ oil market by selling them derivative products at preferential prices. Companies having already shown an interest in the project include Occidental Petroleum, Glencore, Itochu Corp., Mitsubishi, Marubeni, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Valero Energy, and Petrobras. Moreover, the Mexican government is seeking international private sector participation that is prohibited by the Constitution on its own territory. In effect, the MIEP is not against the North American energy project since one of its effects will be to increase the refining capacity for Mexican oil that can later be sold on the US market. Furthermore, there are those who see the MIEP as a counterweight to the Petro-Caribbean agreement, the energy integration option put forth by Venezuela, a move that is of great interest to the United States as it mistrusts the growing influence of the Hugo Chávez government in the region.



The representation of the United States’ Homeland Security had a significant impact on Mexico’s domestic front by forcing it to rethink its conception of territorial security. Today, Mexico accepts all the principles of Homeland Security. In effect, the design of the new North American security perimeter turns the Rio Suchiate into North America’s southern border, which extends northward all the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where cooperation in the fight against terrorism also justifies a hardening of the Mexican position on immigration from Central and South America. Likewise, protection of essential infrastructure led to redefining the vulnerability of the country by taking note of US fears about terrorism. Although Mexico has appropriated in full the postulate of Homeland Defense, its level of cooperation is far from what the United States would like to see in energy matters. Mexico has not formally guaranteed to supply oil to the United States on a priority basis in the event of an energy shortage. Furthermore, the strict petroleum regime of the Mexican Constitution greatly limits the Mexican’s government ability to negotiate in this regard. This is why it may be assumed that pressure will be brought to bear by the United States not only on the Mexican Presidency but also on Congress in order to bring about an amendment to the Constitution.


The 2006 Mexican election revealed the clear divide that exists between the north and south with regard to models of development and integration. To the north, the new context of the Homeland Security situation is a major challenge to ensuring both conditions required for proper operation of the free-trade zone and security of the United States as the White House and US Congress see it. For Mexico in the south, the challenge for the government is, above all, to be successful in achieving a shift in the current development model, so that it translates into tangible results in terms of reducing marginality and poverty rates. This is necessary so that the Mexican public can accept the high cost the security agreements have imposed on Mexico’s southeastern region, which are now intimately linked in the official discourse on North American prosperity.


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[*] Doctoral student at the Institut Français de Géopolitique, Université Paris-VIII. The author is grateful to Marie-France Prévôt-Schapira for her translation and careful reading of the manuscript.

[1] Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean

[2] The term paisano has two meanings: fellow citizen, and peasant.



Since the 1990s, the Mexican government has pursued a policy intended to anchor Mexico to North America, a northward shift clearly endorsed by NAFTA. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 upset this plan. As a result, Mexico has been working actively with the United States and Canada to set up a continent-wide system within which to apply the principles of Homeland Security. This plan of action presents a series of challenges for regional geopolitics and, in particular, for Mexico with regard to its borders, the strategic protection of its territory, migration, and the continent’s energy policies.


  1. Mexico’s Geopolitical Shift
  2. September 11 and “Fortress America”
    1. The Southern Border of the North American Security Perimeter
    2. Homeland Security Starts at the Rio Suchiate
  3. Homeland Security and Energy Policy
  4. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Rodrigo Nieto Gómez, “ Les conséquences géopolitiques pour le Mexique de la politique états-unienne de Homeland Security ”, Hérodote 4/2006 (no 123) , p. 164-181
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2006-4-page-164.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.123.0164.

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