Union Tribune

April 15, 2003

U.S., Mexico pursue common homeland security goals


WASHINGTON The U.S. and Mexican chiefs of homeland security are planning to meet next week in San Diego to hail joint efforts to make the border secure from terrorism and safe for trade.

When they meet April 23, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel are expected to highlight cooperation that continues to improve despite the official U.S. expression of disappointment over Mexico's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"We have a very intense relationship that is mutually beneficial, and we want to protect it," said Carlos Rico, an official at the Mexican Embassy in Washington.

Because Mexico sends nearly 90 percent of its exports to the United States, it wants the United States to be confident that border commerce is not vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.

Mexican officials also want to avert an attack on U.S. interests in Mexico. A terrorist raid on Americans at a beach resort, retirement community or industrial park would be a serious blow for both countries.

So Mexico has stepped up security in these areas, including the undercover patrols that in recent weeks circulated among thousands of U.S. college students celebrating spring break.

The Mexicans also have considered the possibility that terrorists could use their country to launch a biological attack on the United States. They have studied hypothetical scenarios in which terrorists could exploit the intense cross-border traffic to carry an infectious agent such as smallpox deep into the United States.

Some cooperation began shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Mexico initiated stricter scrutiny of visa applicants from Middle Eastern countries and now checks the applications against data provided by the U.S. State Department.

At a meeting in Mexico early last year, presidents Bush and Vincente Fox formally adopted a "smart borders agreement" that expanded cooperative efforts, following a model set by an earlier agreement between the United States and Canada.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the United States and Mexico have made significant progress in their efforts to construct "a border that is open for business, secure for the flow of people and commerce and closed to organized crime and terrorism."

Six U.S.-Mexico working groups meet regularly to plan joint efforts in a variety of areas, including protections for dams on the Rio Grande and electrical grids that cross the border. The two countries have stepped up information exchanges between their federal law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, Customs officials from the two countries have designed a program to ensure fast cross-border commercial shipments for companies that pass a strict screening process. The program, being tested at El Paso, Texas, is expected to be introduced at other ports of entry.