Getting it Done: How Civil Society Can Help Secure the U.S.-Mexico Border

In a rapidly changing world of complex systems, small shifts can produce very big consequences. Here are some ways that local institutions and social networks are already working along the Rio Grande border

In a rapidly changing world of complex systems, small shifts can produce very big consequences. Here are some ways that local institutions and social networks are already working along the Rio Grande border

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A truck bearing Mexican and U.S. flags approaches the border crossing into the U.S., in Laredo / Reuters

If power really is shifting in part from governments to social actors and if those actors have a growing role to play in helping to solve regional and global problems, as I have been arguing, then the proof comes from through innovative partnerships, networks, and collaborations. State, local, and municipal governments also have a big role to play here, as do traditionally domestic government agencies. All of these actors fit in the broader category of non-traditional foreign policy participants. From time to time I will write a column in an ongoing series on "Getting It Done," documenting examples of the work that is happening and producing results on the foreign policy frontier. I encourage all readers to send me examples they know about, preferably through Twitter at @slaughteram, so that I can spread the news through Twitter as well as reporting on it here. But you can also write me by posting a comment here at The Atlantic.

I'm going to kick off this series with a discussion of the role of new players in performing perhaps the most sacred function of territorial states: protecting their borders. The border between the U.S. and Mexico divides two very different states, differences that give rise to many of the problems along the Rio Grande. It is certainly possible to understand much of what happens along that border in terms of clashing state interests and relative state power. The U.S. has sent troops, spies, and law enforcement agents across the Mexican border many times, in ways that will color U.S.-Mexican relations for decades if not centuries to come. The U.S.-Mexican relationship has also shaped traditional Mexican foreign policy, leading successive Mexican governments to align with the non-aligned movement during Cold War struggles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, for example, and to rarely side with the United States on international votes.

The state-to-state lens remains useful in thinking about U.S.-Mexican relations. But when it comes to life as it is actually lived along the border, where transnational problems arise and must be solved, sub-state and transnational actors are developing their own solutions.

One of the biggest transborder issues is the horrific civil violence caused by drug cartels operating in both the U.S. and Mexico, which both spills across the border and weakens the Mexican state. Within Mexico, 34, 612 people have been killed from 2006 until January 2012, a toll higher than that in many ongoing civil wars. Governments, corporations, and citizens are responding in part by trying to map the violence using texts, digital mapping technology, and social media.

It's a strategy that recently cost Maria Elizabeth Marcia, the 39-year old editor of Primera Hora in Nuevo Laredo, her life. The killers placed Marcia's head next to a computer, mouse, cables, and headphones. Her crime? Using social media to report on the activities of local drug gangs. This was just the latest of a string of gruesome attacks. Earlier this month, two young people were murdered and hung from an overpass in the same city for daring to blog about gangs. The swiftness and brutality of the gang response suggests they understand the potential power of this strategy to mobilize ordinary citizens against the gangs. We should be doing everything we can to support Mexicans who are taking these kinds of risks. As one example, my former colleagues at the U.S. State Department traveled to Mexico two years ago to explore ways to use technology to reduce violence, as just one example of government-to-society diplomacy.

In other cases, different government agencies have forged their own partnerships across the border. Since 2010, American and Mexican border guards are increasingly working together to coordinate patrols. Our environmental regulators have been doing this with Mexico since at least 1994, building an extensive set of institutional linkages to manage pollution that floats unimpeded across the border. American companies might be able to outsource production to Mexico, but many of the environmental impacts of the maquiladoras that line the border slip right back across.

Some of the most dynamic connections are happening at the regional level, through a dense network of institutions, such as the U.S.-Mexico State Alliance PartnershipState legislatures along the border have regular joint meetings.The governors of the four American and six Mexican border states have met annually since 1980 through the Border Governors' Conference. This group, a kind of G-10 for the Rio Grande, creates joint workplans on everything from security to agriculture to economic development to transportation. Or at least it used to. Last year, the Mexican governor boycotted the meeting in Phoenix to protest Arizona's harsh new immigration law. This year, just one U.S. governor, Susana Martinez (a Republican) of New Mexico, attended the summit, which took place last week in Ensenada. In other words, state-to-state diplomacy can be just as dysfunctional as country-to-country, but needn't be. Governors Rick Perry (Republican of Texas), Jerry Brown (Democrat California), and Jan Brewer (Republican of Arizona) would be wise not to give up on this mechanism.

The most innovative projects are coming from outside of government altogether. Meet some of the entries to the 2011 U.S.-Mexico Cross-border Cooperation Awards. Sponsored by the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, the competition aims to shift public attention from violent crime to practical stories of successful cooperation. Here are four proposals and the states they affect:

  • The El Paso Museum of Art:A Cultural Crossroads for the United States and Mexico" (Texas-Chihuahua-New Mexico) has been working with its counterpart in Ciudad Juarez to organize joint exhibitions of local artists on both sides of the border.
  • Proyecto Bio-Regional de Educación Ambiental (PROBEA): "Environmental Education without Borders" (California-Baja California). Sponsored by the San Diego Natural History Museum, this alliance of environmental groups from the U.S. and Mexico works to "build environmental knowledge, awareness, skills and active participation and communication in the citizenry of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora and Sinaloa, in Mexico." Kids learn about border-spanning ecosystems and take actions to help them.
  • Yuma Crossing: This cross-national alliance shows that environmental protection can lead to border security and human security. That's the aim of project to restore Hunter's Hole, a 435 acre scrubland on the border of Arizona and Sonora, turning it back into a vibrant wetland. The new marsh would not only create habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife, it would place a natural barrier across a dangerous route used by smugglers of drugs and people.

Small potatoes? Perhaps. It's certainly far from the perceived glamor and danger of eyeball-to-eyeball brinkmanship between great powers. But this week, in my Princeton course on Politics and Public Policy, we read political science articles on the critical role of civil society groups in preventing violence and sustaining vibrant democratic politics, particularly those that cross ethnic communities. More broadly, transnational partnerships and initiatives such as those listed above gradually weave social webs that do not erase borders but overlay them, building trust, resilience, and capacity. And anyone with energy and ideas can participate; local, state and national governments can facilitate and help connect different initiatives in ways that make it possible to develop synergies, distill best practices, and creates templates for others to follow.

It's government not as negotiator, funder, or imposer, but as enabler, facilitator, connector. We don't know exactly how or when we will need all these connections and relationships, but in a rapidly changing world of complex systems in which small shifts can produce very big consequences and we need to mobilize every asset we have, they put money in the foreign policy bank. In that sense, the U.S.-Mexican border is a tangible example of the foreign policy frontier.