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Opinion Don’t throw away the U.S.-Mexico defense relationship

Mexican army special forces march during a military parade celebrating Independence Day in Mexico City in 2012. (Henry Romero/Reuters)
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Craig A. Deare is author of “A Tale of Two Eagles: The U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Defense Relationship Post Cold War.” He is on the faculty at the National Defense University and previously served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.

If most Americans are largely unaware of the strength of the bilateral relationship with Mexico, the process by which the Defense Department and its Mexican counterparts have grown closer is even less understood. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of citizens on both sides of the border, senior defense leaders of both countries have managed to construct an excellent cooperative relationship over the past 25 years that has worked to our mutual benefit. In a world with increasingly aggressive state and non-state actors (including terrorist organizations) with ill intent against the United States, a neighbor and partner that prefers strong ties with us (as opposed to Chinese or Russian military establishments) clearly should be the preferred option for any U.S. administration.

Our shared history is long and complicated, with the United States bearing its fair share of the blame for deep-seated Mexican distrust of the U.S. government. The most respected governmental institution in Mexico — the military — perceives itself as the ultimate guarantor of the nation’s sovereignty. The Mexican army, in particular, is a very conservative institution; it has been very slow to begin to trust the U.S. armed forces, the descendants of the units that invaded Mexico in 1846 and took Chapultepec Castle in September 1847 to bring the conflict to a close.

Despite this reality, in the late 1980s, Presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and George H.W. Bush began conversations that would eventually result in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This incipient economic integration in the early 1990s led to the beginning steps of improving ties between the armies of the two countries, due in large part to then-Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Gordon Sullivan’s instinctive understanding that developing closer ties made good sense. Sullivan visited his Mexican counterpart, Gen. Antonio Riviello Bazán, in October 1992; it was the first visit ever by a U.S. Army chief of staff to Mexico. Sullivan’s engagement led to William J. Perry’s subsequent trip to Mexico City in October 1995, representing the first such effort by a sitting defense secretary to our neighbor to the south. These two leaders’ initiatives set the foundation for what would eventually turn into the early stages of trust, which has continued for more than 25 years.

Fast forward to 2007 and President Felipe Calderón’s decisive move against the drug traffickers and aggressive diplomatic engagement with President George W. Bush. The resulting Mérida Initiative represented an unprecedented level of bilateral cooperation between the two governments’ intelligence, security and defense institutions. Those initial elements of trust that were established by Sullivan and Perry were nurtured by this extensive and continuing commitment.  Despite changes of administrations on both sides of the border — President Barack Obama in 2008, President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 — the military cooperation continued and indeed deepened.

The importance of maintaining a cooperative relationship between our two armies goes beyond the niceties of playing politely in the sandbox. The efforts of the Mexican armed forces contribute directly to U.S. security and defense interests. Beyond their actions to eradicate opium poppy and interdict narcotics traffickers, Mexican forces play an important role in operating against transnational organized criminal entities and other illicit actor networks active in Mexico with the United States as the target.

Perhaps the most well-known example of what the U.S.-Mexico collaboration has produced was the effort to find and re-capture Joaquín Guzmán, better known as “El Chapo.” The notorious drug trafficker was found and caught not once, but twice, by members of elite units of the Mexican armed forces who had trained extensively with their U.S. counterparts. El Chapo was tracked down as a result of very close intelligence ties between U.S. and Mexican military and intelligence, which is exactly the bilateral engagement that deserves protecting.

The results of the 2016 presidential election were a surprise to some, and of significant concern to most citizens in Mexico. An opening presidential trip by Peña Nieto planned for late January was called off due to a tweet exchange. The planned visit by Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos and Navy Secretary Admiral Vidal Soberón with Defense Secretary James Mattis in early February was also canceled, victim of the continuing tensions.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is among the most interdependent and extensive in the world.  The administration’s early positions on the construction of a wall, immigration and trade are all offensive to the Mexican government and society alike and do not bode well for our shared future. As is universally understood, trust is hard to build but easy to lose. Should the Mexican military assess that the new administration’s policy shift away from cooperation to confrontation is not simply a negotiating gambit, it is likely to return to the status quo ante of polite but distant engagement. Such a development would be unfortunate indeed.