A Prescription for Protecting the Southern
Protecting the United States from attack is
a core mission of the Department of Defense (DOD). Historically,
the Armed Forces provided a shield against conventional threats
at sea and through an integrated air defense system developed during
the Cold War. As the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrated,
however, the Nation must confront nonstate adversaries who target
the United States and its interests at home and abroad.
The 2005 Strategy for Homeland Defense and
Civil Support directs an active, layered defense that seamlessly
integrates military capabilities within the United States, in the
geographic approaches to its territory, in the forward regions of
the world, and through space and cyberspace. In other words, it
The challenge of asymmetrical threats led DOD
to create U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) in 2002 to protect
the homeland. Charged with coordinating security cooperation with
Canada and Mexico, this command must detect potential threats, dissuade
adversaries, and defeat direct attacks.2
Furthermore, USNORTHCOM supports civil authorities within the continental
United States, Alaska, and U.S. territorial waters. The command
plays a leading role in improving threat awareness and guarding
the geographic approaches to protect the Nation at a safe distance.3
To the north, east, and west, the framework for a coordinated defense
of land, sea, and air domains with Canada is highly developed. To
the south, however, DOD faces formidable hurdles to organizing a
Planning for a coordinated defense to the south
often defies conventional strategic thinking. Although all states
there, with the possible exception of Cuba, are trying to stamp
out the triple menace of drugs, corruption, and violence, which
also threatens the United States, there are serious resource scarcities,
and most security problems require multilateral responses.
Mexico is the key nation in the southern sector.
Its full cooperation is vital but doubtful. While collaborating
successfully on many law enforcement and security issues, the country
is reluctant to integrate into a defense arrangement. The weight
of history with Washington and an inward-looking concept of national
security preclude close cooperation. The United States cannot protect
its southern approach alone, however, and Mexico must somehow play
a role. This article offers a different organizing construct based
on integrated cooperation with and among nations in the Caribbean
Basin and Mexico and finds positive consequences for U.S. thinking
about the region.
To the east and west out to 500 nautical miles
in a predominantly maritime domain, the Navy and Coast Guard are
refining and expanding capabilities for early-warning, air- sea-subsurface
coordination and interception at a safe distance. Defense of the
northern approach builds on a mature security relationship with
Canada and exploits its depth of at least 2,000 miles. The well-established
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), collocated with
USNORTHCOM, coordinates airspace warning and response while a new
Bi-National Planning Group, which may be integrated into NORAD,
guides preparations for contiguous land and maritime domains. The
Canadian government recently formed a single operational military
headquarters, Canada Command, to manage its armed forces' response
to domestic emergencies and crises and to expedite defense collaboration
with the United States.
Strategic cooperation on these three approaches
benefits from several factors. The high comfort level found in U.S.-Canadian
relations is most important. Both nations appreciate the global
terrorist threat. Both have strong traditions of national and integrated
defense planning and binational cooperation, although actual executive
decisionmaking has never been tested by crisis. With common North
Atlantic Treaty Organization experience, army and navy forces operate
together with relative ease. Finally, both countries benefit from
spatial depth in these approaches, which provides early warning
and response time far from the U.S. and Canadian homelands.
The southern geographic approach to a distance
roughly equal to the depth of Canada encompasses Mexico, the Caribbean
archipelago, the mainland in Central America, and northern South
America. This is a zone marked today by relatively weak democratic
governance; violent crime; public forces unable to police their
sovereign territory fully, resulting in porous borders, coastlines,
and ungoverned spaces; and serious transnational problems (such
as smuggling, weather, and environment) that threaten these countries
as well as the United States. There are two main land, sea, and
air corridors that originate in northern South America and run northwest
to the United States.
The eastern corridor, primarily maritime and
air, centers on the Caribbean archipelago and includes Cuba and
the Bahamas. Its western counterpart, which also has a significant
maritime dimension, links land and air routes across the Central
American isthmus and into Mexico. Nations in both corridors face
violent urban youth gangs and well-established, thriving criminal
networks that traffic and smuggle commodities north and south. The
most successful networks have handled narcotics for years, annually
moving between 250 and 300 metric tons of cocaine north. A new problem
is the potential collaboration among gangs, criminal networks, and
terrorist organizations with global reach.
Relations with Mexico
The United States and Mexico differ in many
ways but have a land and sea frontier of over 2,000 miles. Mexico
has come to know American military and economic power over the past
200 years, which it remembers with a national museum dedicated to
foreign armed interventions. To borrow from William Faulkner, the
past isn't dead in Mexico; it isn't even past.4
Americans, on the other hand, until recently barely looked south
and then focused on either a shared borderland or famous tourist
sites, not on the country itself. Since 9/11, understanding and
finding ways to work with Mexico, with its complexities and contradictions,
have become matters of national security.
The regional trend toward political and economic
convergence in the early 1990s, epitomized by the North American
Free Trade Agreement, ended a long period of inertia and distrust
and called for forced serious bilateral contact. The defense relationship
that emerged is nonstandard and minimalist for the United States,
characterized by few military-to-military contacts and low levels
of military sales and assistance.5 As
a country that professes to have no enemies and adheres to a policy
of nonintervention, Mexico shuns strategic alliances and internalizes
the role of its military. There is an emphasis on civic action in
the countryside, security of vital installations such as sea and
air ports, disaster relief, and some law enforcement and antidrug
operations. The country's longstanding sensitivities about sovereignty,
respect, and the appearance of subordination can be seen with every
thorny issue involving North Americans.
Over the last 10 years, both Mexico City and
Washington have worked to overcome suspicions and to become open,
pragmatic partners in security relations. At the national level,
Mexican and U.S. law enforcement, immigration, and other agencies
collaborate regularly in border administration, intelligence, and
information-sharing on transnational crime networks and terrorism.
In an unprecedented show of support in September 2005, the Mexican
army and navy unexpectedly provided immediate assistance to victims
of Hurricane Katrina.
Defense-to-defense contact, however, has progressed
slowly, consistent with the Mexican government's policy goals and
legal constraints. Organizational asymmetries in these relations
often complicate cooperation. Three examples are instructive:
• Unlike DOD, Mexico's military is organized
into two departments under the leadership of two cabinet-rank uniformed
officers: the Secretary of National Defense, who is responsible
for the army and air force, and the Secretary of the Navy. The senior
position, the Secretary of National Defense, is the counterpart
not only of the U.S. Secretary of Defense but also the Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff
of the Army and the Air Force.
• The Secretariat of National Defense
engages the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff.
There is no natural entry point into Mexico's defense establishment
for a U.S. combatant command. Decisionmaking on military policy
and operations is closed and controlled from Mexico City.
• The United States and Mexico do not
share a common threat perception to national security. Washington
concentrates on external adversaries, particularly terrorists. International
criminal networks are a secondary concern. Mexico does not feel
threatened in the same way; its focus is on dangers and challenges
inside the country, such as domestic crime, drug and arms trafficking,
and natural disasters. International terrorist activity is a secondary
concern. This divergence of priorities also exists in Central American
and Caribbean countries.
Complicating bilateral defense relations is
Mexico's stereotype as "anti-national security." The government
has not adapted the nationalistic tendencies that once served the
country well to today's geopolitical and economic realities. Politicians
are struggling to develop a framework for identifying and addressing
the nation's security concerns. Many considerations are in opposition,
such as traditional isolation versus cooperative efforts to secure
its southern approach; the primacy of policy principles (sovereignty
and nonintervention) over national interests; and safety of migrants
before the concerns of international security cooperation.
There are two competing schools of thought
on defense. The passive, standard approach advocates remaining isolated,
doing what is politically acceptable to appease Washington, and
acting as a "doorstep defense" of the border. The active
approach argues that Mexico should think and act innovatively in
expanding its security agenda, cooperating with neighbors, and improving
the military's capacity to protect the approaches to the country.6
Perhaps the next government will be less stereotypical.
The weight of history, nationalism, and concerns
about subordination makes bilateral defense cooperation with Mexico,
comparable to Canadian standards, difficult to envision. Good faith
that the Mexican government will come around on defense arrangements
misses the reality that, as Alan Riding noted, "underlying
tensions [with the United States] are kept alive by Mexico's expectation
that it will be treated unfairly. Its worst fears are confirmed
with sufficient regularity for relations to remain clouded with
suspicion and distrust."7 Domestic
calls in the United States to "fix the broken border,"
the rise of Minutemen organizations in several states, the Secure
Border Initiative, and, most recently, passage in the House of Representative
of the Sensenbrenner Bill, making illegal immigration a criminal
offense, reinforce Mexico's fear that it will be subordinated in
While today's defense relationship with Mexico
is friendly, correct, and developing, protection of the southern
approach to U.S. territory cannot be anchored on one country, particularly
one that is reluctant to engage as a partner in defense against
terrorists. Is there another organizing construct, unique to the
southern flank, that includes Mexico and can accomplish the mission?
Embedded in this question are three issues that bear directly on
how the United States might answer the challenge: the definition
of the southern approach, differences in threat perceptions, and
the condition of defense and police cooperation within the zone.
Southern Approach. To improve early warning
of threats and maximize space and time considerations at least equivalent
to the distances in the other three approaches (up to 2,000 miles),
the design of this defense-in- depth must encompass the Caribbean
Sea and its border areas, including Mexico, the Central American
and Caribbean nations, Colombia, and Venezuela. It is important
that this sector be viewed as a geostrategic whole rather than a
collection of bilateral relationships. A holistic view draws attention
to important considerations, such as lines of communication used
by criminal networks, geography's influence on sea and air control,
and the nature of political relationships. This view also facilitates
the integration of operations by the Coast Guard and other U.S.
agencies. This definition of the southern approach reflects the
legacy of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and his emphasis on the zone's
role in securing U.S. interests and the "Battle of the Caribbean"
in World War II, which were buried by the Cold War's East-West mindset.
For over 50 years, the Defense Department has divided operational
responsibility for this geographic zone between at least two combatant
Threat Perceptions. Since 9/11, Washington
has tried to achieve a common threat picture in the region based
on international terrorism. While neighbors are willing to share
terrorist-related information and adopt new transportation security
procedures, they have resisted adopting the U.S. perspective. Their
immediate concerns include persistent domestic violence and activities
of criminal networks, particularly in Mexico. This impasse can be
overcome by accepting and acting on the correlation between the
two threat perceptions. Proceeds from transnational crime are known
to support terrorist organizations, and their members exploit the
lines of flow used by traffickers. If countries in the zone improve
public safety and the capacity to control, diminish, and, ideally,
end the scourge of trafficking and smuggling networks, U.S. vulnerability
to terrorists eager to take advantage of ungoverned space and local
instability decreases. This avenue to the United States becomes
unreliable and hard to use. Protecting the southern approach against
terrorists is predicated on greater attention to the fight against
drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crime.
Defense and Police Cooperation. Central American
and Caribbean nations are taking hold of their security challenges
and increasing their cooperation. Military rivalries between and
among neighbors are largely over, even though a few border disputes
remain unresolved. Subregional political and economic linkages under
the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Caribbean Community,
and Mexico's Plan Puebla-Panama (to develop economic infrastructure
along the isthmus) have forced civilian and military leaders to
recognize that countries cannot answer today's challenges alone.
Neighbors have to strengthen their ability to work together in multiple
areas. Mechanisms for military cooperation, such as the Conference
of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC) and the Eastern Caribbean
Regional Security System (RSS), link some countries in subregions,
but not all. An association of Caribbean chiefs of police performs
a similar role. Mexico and Guatemala have signed several accords
that promote border integration. The Departments of Defense and
Homeland Security play a low-key role in nurturing home-grown efforts
to address disaster response, peacekeeping, and other security challenges,
as well as in encouraging the expansion of interstate cooperation
within and outside subregions. While much remains to be done to
protect Central American and Caribbean nations, the steady growth
of their security cooperation is creating building blocks in the
defense of the southern approach to U.S. territory.
An American "Maginot Line" spanning
the southern frontier may be attractive to some, but it is simply
not an option. Early warning and defense must commence at a safe
distance from the homeland. The United States cannot conduct such
a defense alone, although it has tried in the past. Thus far, defense-to-defense
relations have focused only on Mexico, which, to avoid U.S. domination,
has rejected integration into U.S. Northern Command's and NORAD's
operational structure and planning regime. To ensure a strong defense
and to involve Mexico, DOD should visualize the mission differently.
First, though, we must be clear as to why the
United States wants to engage Mexico. There are two primary reasons.
The first deals with coordinating response preparations for shared
disasters (consequence management) in the general area of the U.S.-Mexico
border. This concern involves a separate set of actors and considerations,
which has its own dynamic. Mexican military support after Hurricane
Katrina is a building block. The second reason is protection of
the southern approach.
Instead of trying to integrate Mexico into
the U.S. scheme, the alternative concept sees the United States
working with neighboring states to address shared concerns. In this
concept, Washington encourages and participates in the development
of a Caribbean Basin Security Partnership. This provides the legal
basis for a separate and "locally owned" land, maritime,
and air surveillance and response system covering both geographic
corridors and the Caribbean Sea. A notional "Mexico- Caribbean
Basin Surveillance System," based in and led by Mexico and
staffed by the military, police, and intelligence officers from
participating countries, would collaborate closely with NORAD as
an equal command and with other U.S. information-oriented entities.
This organizing construct brings together four
elements not currently in DOD thinking about protecting the southern
geographic approach to the homeland:
• The United States must comprehend its
vulnerability in terms of a united geopolitical zone that encompasses
the Caribbean Sea and its border areas rather than focusing on Mexico.
• There must be recognition of the direct
correlation between countering entrenched and vibrant trafficking
and smuggling networks and other forms of transnational crime and
countering terrorists in organizing the defense of this sector.
The center of gravity will remain drugs from Colombia.
• Central American and Caribbean confidence-building
initiatives must be used as conceptual building blocks that foster
bilateral and multilateral military and police cooperation. Neighbors
have made considerable progress in the area of disaster preparedness.
DOD also has sponsored programs that have reinforced the mindset
and ability to cooperate regionally.
• It must be appreciated that states
in the circum-Caribbean would prefer an active, layered defense
of their geographic approaches over today's "doorstep"
thinking. Mexico's geographic approaches, for instance, are particularly
vulnerable. This strategic concept never developed because neighbors
were not trusted. A zero-sum competitive mindset made defense-in-depth
unimaginable. Secondarily, nations lacked sufficient military resources.
This mindset is fading. Today, it is possible to envision a series
of interdependent homeland (la patria) defenses in the eastern and
The mission of the proposed Mexico- Caribbean
Basin Surveillance System is to assist member states in two ways:
exercising control over their maritime and air domains and coordinating
interdictions of illicit goods, services, and people transiting
north or south. Governments are responsible for what occurs in their
territory, including control of the land domain. The combined headquarters,
located in Mexico, would have planning and operational functions.
Planning would encompass assessing the cohesion and interoperability
of national civil and military radar surveillance systems, recommending
ways to tighten seams and fill gaps in maritime and air coverage
to improve integration, standardizing procedures across the zone,
and making interstate coordination more efficient and effective.
The operational function would rapidly assess and share information
and orchestrate, as required, the response of one or more countries,
perhaps through the CFAC and RSS. The headquarters also works closely
with agencies in Colombia and the United States, including NORAD,
the Joint Interagency Task Force-South in Key West, and the Coast
The above prescription offers a realistic and
timely concept for protecting the southern approach to U.S. territory,
but the concept will take time to expound to neighbors and stand
up. The trends toward increased Central American military and Caribbean
police cooperation and successful CFAC efforts to organize a Central
American disaster response capability, with U.S. support, are encouraging
steps in this direction. Preparations for the 2007 World Cricket
Cup, which will be held in seven Caribbean countries, offer an excellent
opportunity to introduce infrastructure and cooperative procedures
for the future. The U.S. Government already has assisted with funding
for computers that can link with the International Criminal Police
Organization and national police intelligence agencies. Both Central
American and Caribbean security collaborations have been home grown,
and the low-key and focused U.S. approach to assisting them has
The Department of Defense recognizes that implementation
of its global strategy will need time and funding to transform thinking,
introduce new technologies, and train and equip forces. It projects
a 10-year timeframe and devotes a section of the document to improving
"international partnership capacity and defense-to-defense
relations." The prescription is in line with the DOD position
that "homeland defense will be substantially strengthened through
the cooperation and assistance of allies. In turn, our allies can
better protect their homelands if we help them build capacity for
homeland defense and civil support."10
DOD could take three actions in the near term
to help create the necessary atmosphere to move the prescription
Relations with Mexico. DOD placed Mexico in
USNORTHCOM's area of responsibility for good reasons. In particular,
this placement facilitates planning for consequence management along
the U.S.-Mexico border. Supporting efforts to work with countries
in the area of Mexico, the Caribbean archipelago, the mainland in
Central America, and northern South America, however, is the purview
of U.S. Southern Command, which is precluded from direct engagement
with Mexico. A better arrangement would be the original approach
of keeping Mexico unassigned, making it the responsibility of the
Joint Staff. That would please both Mexico's secretary of national
defense and secretary of the navy since they see the Joint Staff
as their preferred interlocutor. The Joint Staff, with Mexico's
understanding, would work through either combatant command as required.
Airspace Management. The Air Force recently
initiated a program to create an integrated air defense system throughout
Latin America, similar to the program started in Eastern Europe
after the Cold War. The goals are to modernize airspace management
and improve safety through a continuous air picture, updated with
real-time flight track and flight plan data using civil and military
resources, and to increase regional cooperation and interoperability.
If given a higher priority and dedicated resources, this timely
initiative could make a significant contribution to the creation
of the Mexico-Caribbean Basin Surveillance System.
Secure Communication. An important element
in furthering bilateral and multilateral security cooperation is
interoperable means for protected communication. A major step in
this direction is U.S. Southern Command's multinational information-sharing
systems. In particular, the Cooperating Nation Information Exchange
System uses computers on a protected network to enable two-way exchange
on sea and air radar tracks between selected operations centers
and the Joint Interagency Task Force-South. The Mexican navy already
participates in this counterdrug-related system.
The lament is often heard that the United States
does not have a security strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Just as frequently, neighbors in those regions complain that Americans
do not consider their security concerns. The prescription presented
here does both but in an unconventional way, recognizing that interdependence
already exists between the United States, Mexico, and the other
countries in the zone. The central idea is that a Mexico reluctant
to embrace U.S.-Canadian security arrangements is a weak part of
a layered defense of the U.S. southern flank. However, a Mexico
that has a leading role in its own layered defense, in collaboration
with Latin American and Caribbean states facing similar challenges,
can be a strong force in executing a defense-in-depth. The right
collaboration can be a powerful tool in achieving optimal solutions.
To the extent that the concept of a Mexico-Caribbean Basin Surveillance
System can be created over time, the United States will be increasingly
safe. Americans will not be secure until their southern neighbors
1. Full capacity to implement
the strategy is to be developed over a 10-year period.
2. The strategy says
that, even though DOD is concerned with homeland defense, the primary
mission of the Department of Homeland Security is to prevent terrorist
attacks within the United States and that the Attorney General and
the Department of Justice lead the Nation's law enforcement effort
to detect, prevent, and investigate terrorist activity within the
3. In geographic scope,
the continental United States has 5,525 miles of land border with
Canada and 1,989 miles with Mexico. The maritime frontier includes
roughly 95,000 miles of shoreline. As an example of the volume of
commerce that transits the approaches, on the order of 7,500 foreign
ships enter U.S. ports every year to off-load approximately 6 million
truck-size cargo containers onto U.S. docks. See U.S. Coast Guard,
Maritime Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast
Guard, December 2002), 7, 19.
4. Tim Weiner, "Mexico
City Journal: Of Gringos and Old Grudges: This Land Is Their Land,"
The New York Times, January 9, 2004.
5. Of Mexico's military
services, the navy (Marina) is the most active, working primarily
with the U.S. Coast Guard to block narcotics and other smuggling
activities. It has purchased numerous U.S. excess defense articles.
Marina has contact with the Joint Interagency Task Force-South in
Key West on narcotics issues and with USNORTHCOM.
6. Rau_l Beni_tez-Manuat,
Mexico and the New Challenges of Hemispheric Security (Washington,
DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2004); Oscar
Rocha, "Mexico-U.S. Defense Relations," address delivered
to "The Caribbean Sea and Its Border Areas in U.S. Homeland
Defense," a workshop at the Institute for National Strategic
Studies, National Defense University, Washington, DC, August 16,
7. Alan Riding, Distant
Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans (New York: Knopf, 1985), 317.
8. As an example, in
late 2005, the United States halted military assistance, such as
counterterrorism equipment and training, because of a dispute over
whether U.S. citizens should be exempted from prosecution by the
International Criminal Court. To evade sanctions under U.S. law,
countries have the option of signing an immunity agreement to shield
Americans from the court's jurisdiction. Mexico has no plans to
9. During the Cold War,
responsibility for the Caribbean Sea and its border areas was divided
between U.S. Atlantic Command and U.S. Southern Command. Mexico
was one of three unassigned countries (with Canada and the Soviet
Union) and the responsibility of the Joint Staff. For a different
set of strategic reasons, the zone now is divided between U.S. Southern
Command and U.S. Northern Command.
10. Department of
Defense, Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support (Washington,
DC, June 2005), 33-34.
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