Terrorists South of the Border

Last month Time magazine did an article suddenly discovering that the U.S./Mexico border is a sieve that lets millions of people and tons of drugs pass across it every year. In an age of terrorism, this looks like a disaster waiting to happen. If migrant workers and drug runners can cross the border, then obviously terrorists can do so just as easily.

A look at the empirical evidence, however, suggests just the opposite. Comparing Mexico to our other border with Canada, we find that while several dozen suspected and actual terrorists have been caught crossing over from Canada none have been caught trying to cross over from Mexico. Moreover, none have been found in the U.S. after having passed through Mexico. If the Mexican border is such a security sieve why do the terrorists not flock there in droves?

The answer is easy. Mexico isn’t the place most Americans imagine it is.

The first answer to the riddle is that the U.S./Mexico border is a apparent sieve because the vast majority of Mexicans want it to be. Mexico exerts no internal pressure to control its own border. Nobody in Mexico, from the richest to the poorest, from the most honest to the most corrupt has any motive to stop the current flow of people and goods over the border.

Both the poor and the oligarchs alike need the flow of illegal migrant workers into the U.S. The poor desperately need the work and the oligarchs desperately need the social safety valve it provides. Remittances are second only to oil in Mexico’s sources of foreign currency. Without the remittances from U.S.-based working Mexicans, the nation’s economy would collapse.

Drugs flow across the border for the same reason. Mexico makes a lot of money off the drug trade. Even the vast majority of Mexicans who oppose the drug trade on moral grounds are not going to stick their necks out to save some rich gringo kid from OD’ing. They’ve got their own problems. It’s easier just to let the drug lords do their business.

The great myth about Mexico is that it is a disorganized society where nothing gets done efficiently. The truth is that Mexico is a highly organized and strictly ordered society. The problem is that it is organized on a medieval system of family and patronage. The goal of Mexican organization is statis and it does that job very well.

For example, a guild system still functions for most small businesses in Mexico. All the tailors work on the same street and charge the same prices. Nobody gets anything done without buying into a patronage network. Even drug lords must buy into this system. Formal institutions like courts and regulatory agencies don’t function like people in the developed world expect them to, but that does not mean that there are no rules. It just means the rules are cultural and strongly tied to specific individuals.

For example, Mexican police can be highly efficient when it comes to providing security around major tourist hotspots. For one thing, they aren’t hampered by such legal niceties as a presumption of innocence for subjects. When it is in the community’s collective interest that tourists feel safe around the major hotels, well then, suddenly Mexico is a model of efficiency.

The U.S./Mexico border is therefore largely safe from terrorist infiltration. A successful terrorist attack originating from Mexico would lead to a militarization of the border which would be a disaster for everybody from migrant workers to drug lords. You can bet that everybody is on the lookout for any terrorist who might spoil the sweet deal the Mexicans have now. If the Mexicans suspected that somebody might be a terrorist every power in the country, formal and informal, legal and illegal would be gunning for them.

I suspect that some terrorists have tried to travel through Mexico into the U.S. I also suspect they now inhabit anonymous graves somewhere.

Terrorists need the environment of a limited State in order to operate. Mexico does not have that. Its structures are largely informal and cultural, but they are no less omnipresent for being so. It is far easier for terrorists to operate in Canada than in Mexico.

I think the Mexican border, guarded by the organic self-interest of tens of millions of Mexicans, is far safer than the law-bound border with Canada.

7 thoughts on “Terrorists South of the Border”

  1. Might I ask if you meant that nobody gets anything done with buying into the patronage system or if you meant that nobody gets anything done without buying into the patronage system. Otherwise a good posting and I think you hit it right.

  2. dick,

    Nothing gets done without buying into the patronage system. In Mexico, it’s all about who you know. The system is much better than it used to be since free-trade came along but the patronage system is still extremely strong.

  3. This is actually the scenario of Clancy’s last in the Jack Ryan series (The Teeth Of The Tiger). Terrorists make a deal with the Columbian drug lords : they let the Colombians use their European network to distribute the product there while the Columbians smuggle their people and weapons in the U.S. through Mexico.

  4. Sylvain Galineau,

    I don’t read Tom Clancy but I don’t find such a scenario credible. Columbians do not operate themselves in Mexico, they operate through alliances and proxies with Mexicans. I don’t think the drug cartels would do anything to prompt a tightening of the U.S./Mexican border. A major terrorist attack that gave political support to militarizing the border would be a business disaster for them.

  5. Interesting.

    By granting a monopoly to drug lords, and giving them a vested interest in keeping our border open, we’re enlisting them in the War on Terror. We can count on drug lords to use methods to keep us tolerant of border traffic that legitimate businessmen would never use.

    Unfortunately, their stateside distributors kill lots of people on our own soil to defend their market share, so there’s a definite downside. Not to mention the enormous waste of jail space that could be used to keep real criminals off the street.

    Maybe if we take away the protected monopoly on the stateside distributors but still prevent large-scale production here so we’ll have to keep importing the stuff, we’ll get the best of both worlds…

  6. Canada’s legacy – Britain & frogistan

    Mexico’s legacy – Spain & frogistan

    And we wonder why they’re going down the tubes????

  7. I don’t have anything to add except to say as a lifelong Texan that I appreciate your comments and I think you’re right on target.

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