Down on Border, 'La Linea' Isn't So Clear

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 30, 2006

NOGALES, Mexico -- Troops. Barricades. Guns.

On the border, this is the vocabulary of U.S.-Mexico relations. Here at one of the busiest crossing points, dingy metal walls separate the United States from Mexico, rich from poor. The walls are spray-painted with crude images of American border patrol agents, their pistols leveled at brown-skinned men.

Even as differences over immigration and border security -- roiled this week by congressional debates and massive protests by Latinos across the United States -- threaten to dredge a deeper divide between the nations, it is clear that they are increasingly knit by an exchange of business, ideas and, above all, human beings.

On Thursday and Friday, when President Bush meets in Cancun with President Vicente Fox, there will be no topic more pressing than the border -- "La Linea," as Mexicans call it -- a barrier that dominates a relationship marked both by enormous potential and overwhelming problems. Bush arrived in Cancun Wednesday night.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also participate in the talks at the coastal resort, the second session since the formation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, intended to foster cooperation among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Historic feelings of mistrust remain strong on the Mexican side of the border with the United States. Business is booming, but so is crime, and the rapid but lopsided economic development of the region has highlighted the persistent differences in living standards between the two countries.

In 2005, the United States imported a record $170 billion in goods from Mexico and exported $120 billion to its southern neighbor, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Twelve years after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, American business people tap into high-speed, Wi-Fi networks in the lobbies of U.S.-style hotels in border towns such as Nogales.

But out in the remote deserts, the border sizzles with a different kind of activity. An all-time high of 1.17 million people, the great majority of them Mexican migrants, were arrested by U.S. agents for illegal border crossing between October 2004 and October 2005. A record 473 people died while trying to cross, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Uncounted hundreds of thousands more make it into the United States illegally and blend into a nationwide pool of surreptitious, cheap labor. They work on cleanup crews in Houston, construction sites in Virginia and onion fields in California, ever one step ahead of deportation.

At the same time, Mexico remains a major conduit for illegal drugs, turning border towns such as Nuevo Laredo and Juarez into virtual shooting galleries and further complicating relations with the United States.

In the 700-mile corridor between El Paso and Nuevo Laredo, U.S. drug enforcement agents seized 1,220 kilos of cocaine in 2005, up from 700 kilos four years earlier. The amount of methamphetamine confiscated between the Texas border cities of Laredo and Brownsville nearly tripled in those years, to 354 kilos, while marijuana seizures in the Phoenix border-crossing area more than doubled, to 285,000 kilos.

The torrent of drugs and migrants across the Arizona border -- an especially hazardous trip because of the dangers of dehydration in the vast desert -- has turned that state into a flash point for confrontation.

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