/ Modified feb 21, 2017 1:14 p.m.

Under Stress, US-Mexico Intelligence Ties Could Fray

Some say security cooperation could be crucial in Mexico's response to economic threats from the U.S.

CPB intelligence computers hero Officers of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations conduct global observations of air traffic and trade activities at the new National Targeting Center, Dec. 14, 2016. (PHOTO: Glenn Fawcett, U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

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The U.S. Congressional Research Service says intelligence cooperation between Mexico and the United States has become closer in the last decade on issues important to both countries, such as illegal immigration, border security, drugs and human trafficking.

But that critical intelligence relationship may be under examination in Mexico. The country is trying to fashion a response to a suite of economic threats issued by the new U.S. administration. And security is one serious chip to play.

After alleged Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera was arrested near Los Mochis, Sinaloa, last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a statement.

"The arrest is a significant achievement,” it said, “in our shared fight against organized crime.” There are published reports that U.S. intelligence on Guzmán's whereabouts led to the takedown. Guzmán was extradited to the United States last month.

But the former chief of Mexico's National Intelligence Agency between 2007 and 2011 believes that kind of cooperation risks being diluted.

"There will be no incentives to collaborate with the United States," said Guillermo Valdés. During his time in office, and afterwards, intelligence collaboration deepened. Agents from both countries now work together on Mexico's southern border with Guatemala to stop U.S.-bound migrants. The DEA is active inside Mexico, and the U.S. Border Patrol is training Mexican border police inside the country.

But Valdés says that relationship may fray some if a suite of economic threats against Mexico is carried out by the U.S. "If Mexico decides to slow cooperation on security issues, United States will be hurt," he said.

Mexico's new Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray recently told a television host that his country will only bend so far. "Mexico has limits," said Videgaray. He said Mexico won’t play ball on U.S. requests if his nation feel threatened threatened.

"Mexico is willing to say no when national pride and dignity are threatened," Videgaray said.

Guillermo Valdés recently told the Mexican newspaper El Financiero that Mexico should consider expelling DEA agents should the U.S. impose a border tax on Mexican goods or expand the border wall. "The belief that they can make a safe border with a wall ? That's a false idea. That’s not true. And they know it."

"Put yourself in the shoes of a Mexican agent," he continued. "If I see that the U.S. government now is attacking Mexico, I will not be enthusiastic about doing a good job to stop, for example, drugs going to the United States," he stated.


Mexico Mexican soldiers marijuana hero Mexican soldiers work in the mountains of Sinaloa burning this marijuana field, part of an eradication program supported by the United States. (PHOTO: Lorne Matalon, Fronteras Desk)

Valdés worked with American agents after Mexico's previous president Felipe Calderón went to war against Mexican drug cartels in 2006, a strategy backed by the U.S. A decade later, Valdés believes Mexico can withdraw support on any number of security fronts. "The stopping of destroying plantations of amapola" (poppy plant from which heroin is derived), he said. "Or stopping collaboration with the DEA agents in exchange of information about drug traffickers."

One of the people Valdés worked closely with is the former Deputy Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency David Shedd. Shedd said that when the U.S. deports someone to Mexico, the U.S. needs Mexican confirmation of the person's identity. Shedd isn't certain Mexico will continue to furnish that information.

"They may just sit on it or may not pursue it. These are very fluid and ongoing conversations that go on every day and every hour of the day between our two countries. And I just wouldn't want to see that decreased as a result of a tone that makes the Mexicans on edge. If cornered, if somehow pushed against the wall politically, there could be repercussions."

Guillermo Valdés told me Mexico isn't only looking for criminal kingpins. He explained that his colleagues are also working to stop migrants from what Mexico calls "restricted nationalities," meaning regions where terrorism is prevalent.

"People who come from countries with the presence of Al-Qaeda or ISIS," he explained.

That cooperation could lessen, he suggested. But Valdés said he is hopeful that a security relationship that has taken decades to build will not be weakened by threats voiced by a new American administration.

Fronteras Desk
This story is from the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of Southwestern public radio stations, including NPR 89.1. Read more from the Fronteras Desk.
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