U.S. and Mexico’s Defense Policies


Secretary of State Tillerson arriving in Mexico. Photo: The New York Times/Carlos Barria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Mexico City, February 22–23, 2017. He will be joined in Mexico by U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

During their visit, the two Secretaries will meet with President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto and the Mexican ministers of Interior, Foreign Relations, Finance, National Defense, and Navy. The group will discuss border security, law enforcement cooperation, and trade, among other issues.

United States Defense Policy

homeland-security-imageAt the end of World War II, America emerged as a global leader and major power with military capabilities and economic strength, it is at the end of the Cold War that the United States emerged as the world’s sole hegemonic power, not only because of the combined economic, political and cultural power over the rest of the countries but also due of the overwhelming militarily power that built over the years which has made almost impossible for any Nation to avoid being “influenced by the American defense establishment.”[1] On such perspective, the American defense policy remained increasing its capabilities and strategy and it is until the 9/11 attacks that nonconventional threats were added into the program as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

American defense policy has maintained its national objective and military doctrine and has transformed the national strategy in order to adjust to new nonconventional threats such as terrorism, transnational crime, drug trafficking, rogue states, economic crisis and illegal migration. U.S. main security goal to preserve freedom embraces basic national security objectives that, despite the fact that the Cold War is over, had remained constant by deterring military attacks from US, allies and US interests abroad; reducing US reliance on nuclear retaliation through new defense technology; encouraging democracy; assisting allies while defending against invasions and protecting free trade. With the GWOT, national security strategy added also the championship aspiration on human dignity, strengthening alliances to defeat global terrorism and to prevent attacks, defusing regional conflicts, transforming America’s national security institutions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, engaging opportunities and facing the challenges of globalization.

Although new goals have been addressed due of the GWOT, American national strategy has always been founded on diplomacy in order to achieve the national security goals, it is only when diplomacy has failed that military force enters the scene. Such case was played during the Gulf War in 1990, when Saddam Invaded Kuwait, George Bush and his advisers were determined that the use of force was the only solution for deterring Saddam’s invasion and forced him to roll back; diplomatic means for deterrence were heard but ineffective; instead, Bush original plan for the Gulf War received a 46% approval by the American public and when the war started, it looped to 90% because of a fast and almost bloodless for US forces[1].

Mexico’s Defense Policy

sedenaMexican defense policy sets its foundations on the Constitution of 1917 as a direct consequence of the post – revolutionary period and the military leaders that emerged from the movement which ruled the country for over three decades. The group, also known as the ‘revolutionary family’; set the ideological elements that built not only the military doctrine but also the framework for modern Mexico; guarantee of individual rights, social justice and economic developments and answered the social desire for the restoration of public order through the establishment of a strong and reliable system vested in the president figure and supported by the armed forces.

For almost 70 years, the Mexican defense policy remained immutable and presidency task oriented, that is, its main role was to serve and protect the presidential institution and in second place external threats. It is until the end of 1970 that the role of the armed forces began to change as the flow of illegal drugs entered Mexico and police forces were discovered in deep corruption ties with the drug traffickers.

Before the 1990’s, the revolutionary family used a realistic military approach to design the defense policy as the “maintenance of social, economic and political equilibrium guaranteed by the armed forces”[2], such approach defined the national strategy with two main connotations:

  1. Territorial defense, Territorial integrity, and sovereignty emphasizing the proximity with the United States and the historical complexity of the bilateral relationship; and on the other hand.
  2. Internal order, Constitution defense as an excuse to quiet down civic riots and political opposition and non-political Internal security threats (anti-drug).

It is in the mid-1990’s with the entrance of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that the two concepts of national interests started to change due to international circumstances rather than political conviction. NAFTA brought a new dimension to the bilateral relationship between U.S. and Mexico, besides the trade and labor benefits negotiated explicitly in it; NAFTA included specific commitments for the Mexican side in areas of high priority for U.S. national security, such as democratic opening, migration control, military assistance and cooperation and drug traffic control on the border, in order to make the agreement a reality.

For the United States and Mexico, NAFTA is much more than tariffs and trade, economic growth and job generation. It is the symbol of a new relationship and a new structure for cooperation. NAFTA will improve Mexico’s capabilities to cooperate with us in a wide range of vital topics that affects our national security in a direct and tangible manner. [3]

In the view that Mexico needed the agreement in order to set in motion economic development and growth, the changes in defense policy among these two countries started basically with an important increase of military assistance on the borders and bilateral cooperation for the fight against drug traffic.

It is with Ernesto Zedillo’s administration[4] when the first planned changes took place; the administration started by redefining the connotations of the defense policy. In view of the fact that the national strategy was ambiguous; it needed a more profound and clear description of what interests were going to be protected and from whom, in order to respond to a new dimension that had to deal with terms such as money laundering, organized crime, people smugglers, drug traffic and more recently terrorism that, one way or another affects the bilateral relationship and the democratic process in Mexico.

At this point, the term “national interests” started to involve the Mexican democratic process and its actors; which included an extensive list of political parties, civic organizations and international observers that made more difficult for the armed and security forces to proceed the way they used to:

  • The territorial defense as The preservation of, by all the lawful means and international treaties ratified by Mexico, the territorial integrity; understanding it as the air space, territorial waters and land; from international crime, and the illegal exploitation of the Mexican natural resources.[5]
  • Internal order by updating the strategic, intelligence and military capabilities in order to unify criteria that could determine new threats and risks accordingly to the international reality.

Zedillo pointed out the importance of cooperation between the security agencies and must of all, to “update the legal frame for the intelligence services in order to guarantee in every moment, the correct use of the information collected for the national and international cooperation”[6], with the purpose to constraint the injustice and the illegitimate authority acts of the past. By the end of Zedillo’s administration, the national interests changed mainly to comply with the bilateral mechanisms to fight against the drug traffic and with it, to assure a more stable and productive relationship with the U.S. administration.

With Fox administration, the defense policy lies more into the behavioralist theory rather than traditionalist/realist theory since they perceive Mexico as a peaceful Nation and that national security and its interests must evolve in order to “give a coherent, unified and broad vision to the national security strategy”[7]; to elaborate up to date definitions that identify themselves to Mexico’s new democracy and the undeniable influence of globalization.

“The national security strategy has the priority to guarantee public order, freedom and respect for the legal system to set the foundations for economic development that will revert poverty and inequity in order to attain country stability with international exposure, where peace, harmonious coexistence and development will be a Mexican reality where there will be no potential risks that threaten the viability of the country.”[8]

Fox administration oriented the defense policy toward structural state flaws such as poverty, inequity, and the population inability to respond to natural disasters; by deviating the national strategy to social based problems and not national security problems the armed forces gained political space and projection of power.

President Calderon new national strategy was based upon two main guidelines: developing human resources capabilities and accessing modern technology that would allow operative efficiency in those sectors which are considered the foundation for the evolution of the Armed Forces and in accordance with the National development[9], under this context along with the increased violence related crimes all through the border states is that Merida Initiative was conceptualized.

What’s next in the U.S. – Mexico relationship?

Hard to tell, but my main concerns are:

  • Border security.  What will happen to non-Mexican migrants that will send back to Mexico if they came through the country on their way to the US? That “simple” change could potentially send tens of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence, gangs and drug cartels back into Mexico, a major security threat for border cities that have zero infrastructure to accommodate the upcoming floating population, and without shelters, the deported population will be at the hands of TCOs, especially human trafficking.
  • Regional Security. Since his inauguration, Mr. Trump requested the latest numbers on grants and money provided to Mexico. Maybe because he wants to redirect such resources to build the so famous wall, but pulling resources from technical support, police training, rule of law is dangerous. Mexico’s southern border is the first line of defense for the U.S. and Secretary Kelly surely knows that.

merida-initiativeAlthough the Merida Initiative and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) are far from being perfect they are the only thing working so far since 2007.

The Regional Strategy focuses on training but also includes many anti-corruption safeguards and end/use monitoring provisions. Yes, the Merida Initiative and CARSI will definitely put to the test the relationship, intentions and political capabilities of the region, especially for Mexico.

Let’s see what comes next.


  • [1] Korb Lawrence “The United Status” on Viotti The Defense Policies of Nations, Baltimore, 3rd edition, p33
  • [2] Ley Orgánica del Ejército y Fuerza Aérea Mexicanos, 8 December 1986.
  • [3] U.S. Department of State “Statement of Secretary of state Warren Christopher before the House Foreign Affairs Committee”, November 5, 1993, Washington, Department of State Home Page, p.1
  • e Ernesto Zedillo Mexican President from 1995-2000.
  • [5] Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 1995-2000, Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público c1995, pp9-10
  • [6] Idem p.10
  • [7] Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2001-2006, Presidencia de la República, p. 118.
  • [8] Idem p.129
  • [9] Mexican Defense Policy 2006-2012, Ministry of Defense, http://www.sedena.gob.mx/pdf/psdn.pdf last access 25-Jan-08
  • [1] Korb Lawrence “The United Status” on Viotti The Defense Policies of Nations, Baltimores, 3rd edition, p.19

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