The Bear and the Porcupine

By Jeffrey Davidow

Markus Wiener. 250 pp. $68.95; paperback, $24.95


Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Ken Ellingwood. Pantheon. 235 pp. $25

In his memoir "The U.S. and Mexico: The Bear and the Porcupine," former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow laments that the relationship between the two countries has been hijacked by drugs and migration. Reading his book and Ken Ellingwood's "Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border" makes it amply clear why this is so. Steeped in blood and awash in cash, the traffic in drugs and human beings springs from the border clash of affluence and deprivation. Domestic politics in both countries stymie sporadic efforts to confront these issues head-on. The result is a deeply flawed status quo that allows illicit markets to flourish -- and has turned the 1,952-mile border into one of the deadliest regions in the hemisphere.

Part of the reason for the impasse has to do with the dynamic between U.S. and Mexican leaders. Davidow's subtitle derives from his metaphor for this uneasy relationship: He likens the often domineering United States to a bear and portrays Mexico as an overly sensitive, defensive porcupine. A 34-year foreign service veteran who was dispatched to Mexico in 1998 after then-Sen. Jesse Helms blocked William Weld's nomination for the ambassadorship, Davidow has written an engaging account of his four-year posting. He is wickedly unsparing in his description of foreign policy mandarins on both sides of the border (former secretary of state Madeleine Albright in particular is the subject of some withering asides). He is also surprisingly forthcoming about a slew of behind-the-scenes diplomatic crises that cropped up on his watch, ranging from botched U.S. abductions of drug dealers to a near confrontation between President Bush and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at a Mexico City airport.

The most gripping part of the book centers on the drug war. About 70 percent of the cocaine that comes into the United States from South America passes through Mexico, and many law enforcement officers aren't doing much to impede the flow. Davidow heard of Mexican customs officials who paid $1 million to be appointed to a position running a busy border-crossing post. As he points out, the seven-figure bribe is a good investment because it provides the opportunity to extract kickbacks from drug barons.

With that track record, it's not surprising that U.S. agents so distrusted their Mexican counterparts that they essentially circumvented them -- with occasionally disastrous results. At one point, exasperated by Mexican authorities' refusal to apprehend a narcotics kingpin, U.S. customs officials hired local police to kidnap the man and take him to El Paso. That action in itself violated a U.S.-Mexican agreement that prohibited cross-border arrests. To make matters worse, the Mexicans nabbed the wrong guy -- a small-time drug wholesaler, it turned out, whom customs officials insisted on retaining in custody. Seeing a diplomatic debacle in the making, Davidow prevailed upon higher-ups in Washington to have the man released. While acknowledging that the "exquisitely choreographed dance" meant to protect the Mexican government's pride allowed drug dealers to walk, he argues that a minor-league hood wasn't worth the risk of a public relations nightmare south of the border.

If the narcotics trade was a constant irritant to U.S.-Mexican relations during President Clinton's tenure, the migration issue flared up with a vengeance after the elections of George W. Bush and Vicente Fox in 2000. At first, the news was relatively hopeful: Both men insisted they were committed to finding a more humane and rational way of regulating the flow of Mexican workers into the United States. But as Davidow explains, there was never much potential for reaching a solution, particularly after White House political director Karl Rove decided that an immigration accord might alienate voters as the country approached midterm elections in 2002.

Inaction comes with a steep human cost. As Ken Ellingwood's "Hard Line" documents, the migration north is a perilous undertaking, claiming roughly one life a day. Those deaths became increasingly gruesome after Clinton ordered much tougher policing of urban points of entry beginning in the mid-'90s. Doubling the number of border agents over five years and concentrating them in cities such as San Diego effectively sealed off those towns from interlopers. But the crackdown -- dubbed Operation Gatekeeper -- did not curb migration. Rather, it prodded migrants to sneak across via out-of-the-way routes through the mountains and deserts -- making it much more likely that they would perish from heat exhaustion or extreme cold.

Ellingwood, who was the Los Angeles Times's border correspondent from 1998 to 2002, has thoroughly and compassionately catalogued the stories of the major players in the border saga. He tagged along with border patrol agents, many of whom are the children of Mexicans who entered the country illegally. They aren't the only ones keeping watch: Arizona ranchers became so infuriated by the stream of migrants through their land that they took to rounding them up themselves. Ellingwood witnessed these vigilante-style escapades firsthand, riding shotgun as some of the men attempted to root out Mexicans from hiding places near their property.

On the other end of the spectrum are humanitarian activists. Ellingwood met with one elderly Republican woman who shelters illegal immigrants in her modest hotel. "Regardless of anything else," she told him, "these are human beings." The most poignant testimonials come from the Mexican migrants themselves. Particularly disturbing and graphic are accounts of the 2001 tragedy in the Yuma Desert, where 14 Mexicans were baked alive.

Earlier this year, President Bush floated the possibility of creating a guest-worker program not unlike the Bracero program that legally brought 4 million Mexican farmworkers to American fields after World War II. But the proposal garnered little support from the GOP base, and there is virtually no chance that Congress will act on the issue before this fall's elections. Ironically, news reports of potential amnesty appear to have fueled more traffic, prompting a spike in deaths along the border. The forces that have lured so many Mexicans north have not been addressed and have not abated. The tragedy is that the policies that make that journey potentially lethal will not change anytime soon.