On July 17, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO) announced that he was putting Mexico’s military in charge of Customs operations at land and seaports of entry in order to root out corruption. Illegal drugs, chemicals used to make illegal drugs, and contraband have been tied to violence in Mexico, mainly the ongoing drug wars fought by cartels. The situation has become so dire in some regions of Mexico that cartels are fighting over control of the ports of entry and the area that surrounds them. Control is usually obtained by either supplying “mordidas” (bribes) to Aduanas (Mexican Customs) personnel or using threats and violence to obtain compliance in illicit activities.
As with any industry, there are good and bad actors. In Aduanas, I have dealt with hard-working professionals who do their job correctly and in a patriotic spirit for their country. However, I have also encountered officials who rise every day with the goal of lining their pockets at the expense of others. This corruption happens not only in Mexico, but also in the U.S., as has been evidenced throughout the years by CBP officials who have been convicted of bribery and allowing drugs into the U.S. on their watch. Thankfully, corrupt individuals on either side of the border are in the minority.
Every day billions of dollars of goods cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2019, U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $614.5 billion or an average of $1.68 billion per day. When conducting cross-border trade, it is imperative to develop a good relationship with Mexican Customs officials in order to process shipments in an expedited manner and to resolve the inevitable problems that arise on a daily basis. The Mexican federal government frequently changes port directors with the objective of reducing corruption. This makes developing a strong working relationship even harder because they generally don’t last long-term. By the time you have developed a good working relationship that person is gone, and the building of trust and cooperation has to start from scratch.
How that development of trust and cooperation will occur with the military remains to be seen. In Mexico, it seems that when systems fail, the military is called upon to rectify and stabilize the situation. The military has been involved, sometimes controversially, in civilian policing in attempts to disrupt cartel activities and violence. Military checkpoints to verify identification and pertinent information are common across Mexico, as the government attempts to interdict illegal drugs and cartel members. However, the military also has been commandeered to operate heavy machinery that is being used to construct the new Mexico City Airport – not something you typically think of as a military duty.
On the positive side, AMLO is attempting to address corruption, a major theme in his presidential campaign. At an El Paso, Texas speech during a campaign stop, I listened to candidate AMLO constantly return to the theme of eradicating corruption if Mexico was ever going to seriously address poverty and become a more prosperous nation. It would seem logical to attack corruption at ports of entry, where historically there has been documented corruption.
On the flipside of the coin, will the front-line soldiers administering the ports of entry have the requisite training and experience? Companies and nations compete globally based on productivity, in which getting supplies/components to producers, and the end product to the consumer, rely on logistical efficiencies. It is a big unknown whether the military running the ports of entry is going to hamper or slow down commerce. Nobody wants this to occur.
And the military is not without its own corruption. From the ground-level soldier to the highest general in the Mexican army, there have been publicly documented cases of corruption, involving bribes that allow drugs to pass without detection or the ability of criminals to act with impunity. The case of General Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who in 1996 was appointed Mexico’s first Drug Czar, comes to mind. By 1997, he was fired from his post for conspiring with the Juarez Cartel and receiving a substantial amount of money. He was tried and sent to prison for more than 30 years, where he eventually died.
Finally, I have to wonder, what image does it send to private and commercial crossers at Mexican ports of entry to have soldiers overseeing Customs operations? No matter how many times I see the military conducting checkpoints in Mexico or assisting the local police forces in times of crisis, I get this nervous feeling in the pit of my gut. I personally have never had any problems with any military personnel in Mexico, but it seems unnatural to be stopped at a highway checkpoint by soldiers with AK-47s slung around their shoulders.
At a minimum, AMLO’s plan could work by signaling to corrupt Aduanas officials that the federal government is keeping on eye on them and will not stand for corruption at ports of entry. If it doesn’t, we may begin hearing complaints of inefficiencies and delays that are slowing down commerce. Given our need to be as competitive in the worlds as possible, this will not be acceptable.