This coming September 11 is the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks against the United States. The commemoration will understandably be marked by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States is currently immersed in a national debate about its longest war, its 20-year presence in that country and the way it is ending. My intent here, however, is a different one: to take stock of some of the effects that those attacks had in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. These deplorable attacks were an event with profound domestic and foreign policy consequences for the United States, and Mexico is one of the countries that has been impacted the most.
A few days after then presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush met in Washington, DC and agreed that U.S.-Mexican relations had “entered their most promising moment in history”, the outlook for the relationship –and the world for that matter– changed dramatically. The United States was attacked in its homeland and very much in shock. A total of 2,977 people were killed in New York’s World Trade Center, Washington’s Pentagon, and in the fields of Pennsylvania. The initial impetus for pursuing and ambitious U.S.-Mexico bilateral agenda was lost, only to be partially recovered in the following years. Moreover, as it was widely reported in the news, internal political dynamics in Mexico, both among political forces and within the cabinet resulted in a hesitant and somewhat disorganized initial response from the Mexican government. The official public statement actually did not come out until September 18. At that time, it was probably hard to fully assess the aftermath of 9/11, but I think it is fair to say that Mexico’s initial response was not what the Bush administration expected, nor what the situation called for. Naturally, there was a “cooling” in the relationship. This became even more evident during the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Mexico was siting as a non-permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council. The Bush administration was disappointed by Mexico’s position and made it evident. In spite that period of tension, the U.S.-Mexico relationship proved its resilience and, to a large extent, was again set on track. Many lessons for both countries come out of those years and merit a much longer reflection but allow me to concentrate in four important “structural” changes in the bilateral relationship that occurred as a result of 9/11.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks generated the most comprehensive reform in the United States security structure since 1947. The main developments where the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Homeland Security Department (DHS), with the primary mission of protecting the United States Homeland against terrorism, and the Northern Command of the United States (NORTHCOM). All this implied a change in the traditional security cooperation and foreign policy channels between both governments. In short, DHS became a key player in the bilateral relationship with links to Mexico’s Secretariats of Foreign Affairs, Governance and Treasury. Also, in terms of military-to-military relations, Mexico’s armed forces began to interact with NORTHCOM in addition to SOUTHCOM.
Related to the latter point, Mexico became much more important to the security of the United States. Throughout the 20th century, Mexico had been seen by the U.S. security apparatus predominantly through the lens of conventional or nuclear warfare or the war of drugs, as it still happens today. However, the threat of non-state actors and especially global terrorist groups, which became forcefully evident after 9/11, made necessary a strategic revaluation of Mexico as a security partner for the United States. On what can only be labeled as bad coincidence, Mexico had announced just a few days before 9/11 its withdrawal from the Inter American Reciprocal Treaty or TIAR, which since 1947 created a hemispheric defense system. The 9/11 attacks increased U.S. interest in Mexico’s southern border –something that remains as of today– and prompted for the first time a meaningful discussion about on a North American security perimeter. Over the last 20 years, intelligence sharing along with coordinated actions to monitor and act upon potential non-state threats has noticeably increased between both countries. Understandably, these developments have taken place ‘’under the radar”. Even if the probability of a non-state threat against the United States materializing through Mexico has remained low, in my view, it should continue to be taken seriously.
Perhaps the area in which the effects of 9/11 has been felt more clearly and broadly is on immigration. The famous “whole enchilada” pursued by the Fox administration was clearly ambitious, but it pointed in the right direction. For many reasons Mexico and the United States should strive to achieve a better bilateral arrangement on the movement of people across their borders. The terrorist attacks of 2001, as it is rightly pointed out, pushed the security component into an already complex and politically charged discussion. As of today, a better way to manage migration between both countries is still a pending issue, and the security dimension continues to be present. The central argument to be made, I believe, is that allowing for robust legal avenues for the movement of people, will permit both countries to devote more resources to their most pressing and shared security concerns, including those along the border.