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Mexico and the United States

Relations between the United States and Mexico are among the most important and complex that each nation maintains. They are shaped by a mixture of mutual interests, shared problems, and growing interdependence. The United States is particularly concerned with illegal immigration, narcotics trafficking, environmental POLLUTION, and economic stability.

The scope of U.S.-Mexican relations goes far beyond diplomatic and official contacts, entailing extensive commercial, cultural, and educational ties. More than one million legal crossings are made from Mexico to the United States every day. Along the 2,000-mile shared border, state and local governments interact closely. The two countries seek to resolve many issues, ranging from combating narcotics trafficking to improving and protecting the shared environment.

The U.S. government has long recognized that a stable and economically prosperous Mexico is fundamental to U.S. interests. Since 1981, the United States-Mexico Binational Commission, composed of numerous U.S. cabinet members and their Mexican counterparts, has met annually to discuss an array of topics, including trade and investment opportunities, financial cooperation, anti-narcotics cooperation, and migration.

Mexico is a major trading partner with the United States. Mexican exports in 2001 totaled $159 billion, with 88.4 percent of its exports

going to the United States. Of Mexico's 2001 imports totaling $168 billion, 68.4 percent of the imports were from the United States. In January 1994, Mexico joined CANADA AND THE UNITED STATES in the NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT (NAFTA), which will phase out all tariffs among the nations over a 15-year period. U.S. LABOR UNIONS and some businesses were concerned that the lower tariffs would induce more U.S. companies to relocate factories to Mexico because of lower labor costs there.

The United States played a major role in stabilizing the Mexican economy in 1995. The Mexican government, unable to meet its foreign debt obligations, devalued its peso in December 1994. The resulting financial crisis threatened the stability of other emerging-market economies in Latin America. The United States led a group of international lenders that made available to Mexico more than $40 billion in international financial assistance, including $20 billion from the United States. Although Mexico suffered a severe recession in 1995, the Mexican government's implementation of tough stabilization measures averted an even more serious collapse. The economy began to recover in 1996, and by 1997 Mexico was able to repay the United States the $12.5 billion in loans that it actually had used.

A major concern of the United States has been illegal immigration from Mexico. The desire of Mexicans to leave their country is fueled by a large population (more than 103 million in 2002) and a shortage of well-paying jobs. The U.S. Border Patrol has grown in response to the large number of Mexicans crossing the border illegally. More than 4,000 agents police the border, an increase of 50 percent from 1993, and the number is expected to grow. Parts of the 2,000-mile border have become militarized zones. Steel fences run through deserts and up over hillsides. Border Patrol agents use high-technology surveillance equipment to track the movement of illegal ALIENS. In some sectors, the NATIONAL GUARD and Army personnel assist the Border Patrol.

The Mexican-U.S. border is also the leading entry point into the United States for illegal narcotics. It is estimated that drug traffickers smuggle about $10 billion worth of narcotics into the United States each year, making marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine some of Mexico's most lucrative exports. U.S. and Mexican officials offer differing explanations for the trafficking. U.S. officials blame the alleged corruption of Mexican law enforcement officials for allowing large-scale traffickers to continue their operations. Mexican officials argue that the problem lies on the other side of the border, where the appetite of U.S. drug users drives the trafficking.

The United States has steadily restricted the Mexican drug trade through aggressive patrol of the borders and searches at border checkpoints. Nevertheless, NAFTA has increased legitimate border traffic, overwhelming U.S. customs officers at the checkpoints. It is estimated that officers can only search about seven percent of all vehicles crossing the border.

In response, the U.S. DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION has sought to develop closer ties with Mexican drug enforcement officials. However, concern about the corruption of government officials has hurt relations between the countries. Mexico has failed to arrest several drug lords whom the United States has long sought and has failed to implement anti-narcotics legislation passed in 1996. In February 1997, the official in charge of Mexico's antidrug war, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested for allegedly being on the payroll of the leader of the Juárez, Mexico, drug cartel. Although the United States stood by the Mexican government, it made clear that Mexico must make progress in arresting major drug lords, extraditing drug criminals to the United States, prosecuting MONEY LAUNDERING, and fighting internal corruption. With some experts claiming that Mexico is responsible for 70 percent of the illegal drugs in the United States, the war on drugs remains a source of friction between the two countries.

The United States and Mexico have sought to resolve common environmental issues, particularly in border areas where rapid population growth, urbanization, and industrialization have caused serious problems. In 1992, the United States and Mexico developed the Integrated Border Environment Plan, under which the two countries have worked to construct wastewater treatment plants; strengthen cooperative planning and enforcement efforts; reduce pollution, develop planning, training, and education; and improve understanding of the border environment.

The second phase of the 1992 border plan, called Border XXI, will promote environmental and sustainable development in the U.S.-Mexican border region through increased public participation and improved coordination among local, state, and federal agencies to maximize cooperative and effective use of limited resources. In addition, the plan will encompass environmental health issues and natural-resource protection.

As part of NAFTA's environmental agreement, the United States, Mexico, and Canada have created a North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation. This commission is charged with strengthening environmental laws and addressing common environmental concerns.

In 1993, the United States and Mexico established two institutions to address the environmental infrastructure needs of the border region. The Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) works with local communities to develop plans for better meeting their need for environmental facilities, including wastewater treatment plants, drinking-water systems, and solid-waste-disposal facilities. In addition, the two countries created the North American Development Bank to obtain private-sector capital to finance the construction of border environmental facilities certified by the BECC.

The International Boundary Commission, which was established as a permanent, joint commission by treaty in 1889, is responsible for solving U.S.-Mexican water and boundary problems. These issues include distribution between the two countries of the waters of the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers, and joint operation of international dams on the Rio Grande to control floods, conserve water, and generate electricity. Since the early 1980s, the commission has focused on border sanitation problems and has studied groundwater resources along the boundary.

When President GEORGE W. BUSH took office in 2001, he immediately entered into discussions with Mexican President Vicente Fox. One of the items on his agenda was the creation of a guest-worker program, which would allow thousands of Mexican nationals to work in the United States as guests, mostly in agriculture. A number of groups opposed the proposal. A United States-Mexico Migration Panel, a binational group consisting of 30 members from both nations, agreed that the two countries should collaborate to meet several objectives, including making visas more available to Mexican citizens, improving cooperation between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement to counter human SMUGGLING, and improving Mexico's economy. The negotiations were part of Fox's efforts toward economic development and social reform.

The SEPTEMBER 11TH ATTACKS of 2001 largely put a halt to these negotiations. The United States immediately shifted its attention to protecting its lands against terrorist attacks, including enhancing and improving border patrol. In 2002, Congress abolished the Immigration and Naturalization Service, creating from the agency the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security. Both agencies are part of the HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT.

The slowdown in the U.S. economy and the change of focus on the part of the United States from Latin America concerns to those related to TERRORISM caused a minor strain on U.S.-Mexico relations. Fox was criticized when he unsuccessfully sought to win concessions from the United States over immigration issues. Nevertheless, these strains have not eroded the economic relationship between the two countries, as trade between the United States and Mexico is expected to rise during the first decade of the twenty-first century.


Bosworth, Barry, et al. eds. 1997. Coming Together? Mexico-United States Relations. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

U.S.-Mexico Binational Commission site. 1997. Available online at www.fas.usda.gov/itp/bnc/us-mexico/us mexico.html> (accessed March 19, 2003).

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