The Challenge of the U.S.-Mexico Border

US-Mexico BorderBy Jay Gilhooly

Small Wars Journal

The real national security threat along our border with Mexico is not immigration.  All along the border, transnational activities threatening national security include narco-trafficking, human trafficking, alien smuggling, and international terrorism as well as threats involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  The stakes could not be higher as even a single truck allowed to enter today may have narcotics, tomorrow indentured women, and the next a piece of a dirty bomb.  Once through a border checkpoint, the truck has easy access via the interstate system to every part of the continental United States.  A patchwork of federal, state, and local government agencies attempt to compete with a multi-billion dollar crime industry built on drugs flowing north and cash and weapons flowing south.

From presidential candidates to Catholic Charities and from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to the tea party, the demand for action to improve the security of the border and the safety of the people who live in the communities alongside it has reached an unprecedented level of consensus.  The problems on the border have little to do with U.S. immigration law; rather, they stem from a convergence of factors, including sophisticated organized crime networks, decades of poorly executed foreign policy, and misinformation spread by smugglers to desperate people in failing states within the Northern Triangle of Central America. To better understand the challenges of securing the border, this article will analyze the Border States environment, the human element, and then look towards the future.

The sun shines on the southern border of the United States 296 days per year.  The vast border stretches 2,000 miles through the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.  The beauty of the desert landscape is exemplified by national parks like Big Bend in Texas and blends with a rich cultural heritage seen in churches such as San Augustin in Laredo and multicultural cities from San Antonio to San Diego.  Beneath the beauty and deeply influenced by a rich cultural history lies a composite of conditions, circumstances, and influences that form a unique environment and affect the employment of law enforcement and security capabilities.

Federal land encompasses more than half of Arizona (57 percent) and California (52 percent) and more than a third of New Mexico (35 percent) with the Bureau of Land Management alone responsible for the administration of an area (419 million acres) three times larger than Afghanistan.  The history of the region has been one of cross-border violence and corruption from the time of New Spain.  Native communities of at least three distinct cultures had settlements in the area long before Spanish settlers arrived and it has long been a region inhabited by outlaws, adventurers, and missionaries.  The border itself was settled by the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.  The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo constitutes more than half the length of the border.  El Paso (originally El Paso del Norte) was the first town built on the river (c. 1600) along a critical north-south trade route then known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land), and now known as the Pan American Freeway or Interstate 25.  The physical environment of the border is primarily desert with a scarcity of water and harsh weather that alternates between blistering daytime temperatures and below-freezing temperatures at night.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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