WASHINGTON — Despite ongoing violence south of the border, cooperation between Mexico and the United States has reached unprecedented levels.
At a luncheon Monday at a Washington think tank, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Mexican Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire touted how they’ve teamed up to fight drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and human smuggling. Simultaneously, they warned that progress could be stalled if not continued by the next administrations in both countries.
“The challenges are so massive, and the threats so clear, that as much as we have advanced it is imperative that the level of effort not only stays at the same level, but hopefully increases on both sides of the border,” Poire said.
While voters still have two months before they choose whether President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney should run the U.S., Mexicans voted this summer for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto. He takes over Dec. 1.
It’s unclear whether Pena will continue the same relationship with Obama or Romney. Pena has stressed in campaigns that he wants to reduce the level of violence in Mexico.
Violence in Mexico has claimed more than 35,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon came into office in late 2006. Most of the fighting has been between drug gangs, but the violence has left Mexicans questioning Calderon’s war on drug trafficking.
Last year, 15,273 Mexicans were killed in drug-related violence. Six out of 10 Mexicans think that organized crime gangs are getting the upper hand in the drug war, according to a Demotecnia poll.
Speaking as if Pena and Romney were sitting at one of the tables, both Poire and Napolitano stressed that the relationship between the two countries must continue with the same urgency.
“Cooperation between our two countries has never been stronger, but we also know that the threats we face are dynamic,” Napolitano said. “We must continue to work together. This is not a static situation and we should never be comfortable leaning back in our chairs and saying we’re done.”
Poire credited U.S. intelligence with helping Mexico capture the alleged kingpin of the Gulf Cartel, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, known as “El Coss.” The State Department had a $5 million reward out for his arrest.
“I think the reality is there is more day-to-day cooperation on an operational level on very sensitive issues than we’ve ever seen before,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which hosted the event. “At the same time, there is a great deal of distrust between and among agencies. And there are crises of trust and political taboos that are still hard to break.”
Poire and other top Cabinet officials of the Calderon administration are in Washington for a security meeting Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder.
While the two countries have been sharing intelligence for years, Poire and Napolitano said the drops in border crossings by illegal immigrants has created “more space” to improve ties.
Illegal immigration has long been one of the “open wounds” between the two countries, Selee said.
An estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. each year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which is a 70 percent drop from the annual rates during the first half of the decade.
Tim Johnson contributed from Mexico City.