The real risks to the US come from Mexico’s southern border

The real risks to the US come from Mexico’s southern border

During the presidential campaign and throughout the first year of his administration, US President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for tougher enforcement of the United States’ southern border to curb illegal immigration and illicit drug flows from Mexico. It is on Mexico’s southern border with Central America, however, that many of the current issues originate. Ironically, Trump’s harsh rhetoric and proposed cuts to international aid could inadvertently amplify these problems.

The US southern border

For decades the US experienced high volumes of illegal immigration from Mexico, largely due to economic hardship in Mexico and inadequate and inconsistent enforcement by the US. However, in recent years the net immigration from Mexico to the US has all but disappeared, and more Mexicans are in fact migrating within Mexico.

This trend began well before President Trump came to office. Pew estimated that from 2009 to 2014, one million Mexicans left the US and 870,000 arrived. Some of the changes stem from an improving economy and job market in Mexico, as well as improved border enforcement by both Mexico and the US. In the past year, undoubtedly, some have also been deterred by Trump’s threats of increased deportations.

The largest source of illegal immigration at the US southern border now comes from Central American immigrants, specifically from the Golden Triangle, or Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. These countries have not witnessed the same degree of economic growth as Mexico and high levels of corruption, poverty, and exposure to drug-related violence induce many to leave.

Many Americans remember the surge in 2014 of unaccompanied children from this region seeking entrance to the United States. Mexico deported around 140,000 people in 2016, about 96 percent of whom originated from the Northern Triangle countries.  

When it comes to drugs, Mexican drug cartels remain the largest foreign suppliers of heroin, and methamphetamines to the US, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Mexican cartels have also become leading producers of Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic. Cocaine largely originates from Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, but the DEA estimates that 93-94% of Colombian cocaine comes to the US via the Mexico/Central America land corridor.

Consequently, the need for drug cartels to move high volumes through this vast corridor has created significant employment opportunities in poor, Central American communities, but also widespread violence, which prompts many to flee north.  

Efforts to improve southern border patrol

Recognizing the threats posed from Central America, in recent years, the US and Mexico have enacted joint efforts to strengthen enforcement of both the US and Mexico southern borders.  The US views this border as the first line of defense against illegal immigration and drug trafficking into the US and sees a role in filling the gaps that Mexico lacks the capacity to handle on its own that ultimately affect the American border.

In an effort to curb immigration from unaccompanied minors from Central America, in 2016 the US Congress approved $750 million to support the Obama administration’s Northern Triangle Alliance for Prosperity Plan, which doubled aid to Central America from 2014 levels.

On the security and law enforcement side, in 2007, the US and Mexico launched the Mérida Initiative, a partnership for disrupting organized crime, institutionalizing reforms that support rule of law and human rights, and creating secure and modernized  borders.  To date, the US Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion to the initiative.  

Additionally, the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and the US Department of Defense have worked to enhance Mexico’s police and border patrol agencies, in part by funding a $75 million telecommunications project to improve secure communications between Mexican agencies working in eight southern states.

INL has also implemented programs with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to strengthen law enforcement institutions and train Mexican police and military units to improve drug seizures in the southern border zone.

Risks of neglecting Mexico’s southern border

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s adversarial posture toward Mexico could actually endanger the ability to combat migration and drug flows into the United States, even with increased enforcement in the north.  Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), a leftist populist candidate for Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, has recently taken the lead in polls by running as the anti-Trump.

AMLO has expressed strongly pro-immigration views, mainly in support of Mexicans residing in the US and fearing, but also in terms of welcoming more migrants from Central America into Mexico. In response to Trump’s initial DACA policy announced in September, AMLO responded, “in Mexico, the doors are open.”

Any continuation of hostile rhetoric from Trump could further strengthen AMLO’s accelerating support for the presidency in 2018. Additionally, the difficulties of the current NAFTA renegotiations and Donald Trump’s threats to exit the agreement altogether have even caused Mexico’s current political leadership to state that they would reconsider cooperation with the United States on security and migration issues if the US chooses to exit NAFTA.

Additionally, while the Trump administration has ramped up immigration enforcement and proposed more security measures at the US southern border, it has also proposed sweeping cuts to international aid programs that will hinder Mexico’s ability to sustain its achievements in enforcing its southern border with Central America. As of this summer, the Trump administration still proposed a 39% reduction in support for Central America in fiscal year 2018.


Overall, effective deterrence of illegal drugs and immigrants entering the US will need some combination of enhanced enforcement at the US southern border, as well as aid to Mexico to effectively police its own southern border.

Mexico and the US remain strong partners in commerce and security, but any efforts by one or both sides to further antagonize political disagreements or by the US to cut transnational partnerships could severely jeopardize both countries’ abilities to address their shared problems in this arena.


Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Samuel Schofield

Sam works as a strategy and operations consultant for Deloitte Consulting LLP in its federal services practice in Washington D.C. As a contributing analyst for GRI, Sam writes on political, economic and security risks in Latin America that influence US trade and diplomatic posture toward the region. He has an MBA from American University's Kogod School of Business and a BA in International Affairs from the University of New Hampshire. He previously worked at the US Department of State as a budget analyst and as a program officer at an NGO focused on rural development projects in Mexico and Central America. He also has led a consulting engagement supporting a Colombian aquaculture company with expanding to US markets. The views expressed here are those of the analyst and do not necessarily reflect the views of his current, former, or future employers or any organization with which he is associated.