His Excellency Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, Embassy of MexicoBookmark and Share


Ambassadors Roundtable

May 7, 2008




As part of the Ambassador Roundtable Series on International Collaboration to Combat Terrorism and Insurgencies, The Homeland Security Policy Institute and the International Center for Terrorism Studies co-hosted Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan of Mexico, on May 7, 2008.

In September 2001, on his first trip abroad in office, President Bush said that “the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico.” Though the two countries are often distant neighbors, Ambassador Sarukhan believes that the US and Mexico are moving beyond a history of mistrust to a new strategic partnership.

One key component of that relationship is trade. NAFTA, said the Ambassador, has been a boon to both countries. Mexico is the US’ third largest trading partner; the total value of US-Mexican trade in 2007 was almost $350 billion.(1) This has bound Mexico to the US in ways never before possible and has contributed significantly to Mexico’s well-being – and not just in financial terms. According to Ambassador Sarukhan, the negotiations to implement and rules imposed by NAFTA had a political impact, forcing Mexico to become more accountable, transparent, and democratic.

Knowing the importance of good relations to Mexico’s well-being, the Ambassador said that it would behoove Mexico to improve security, as if ever a threat to the US materializes across the border, it would have serious consequences for the health of that relationship. To prevent this, Mexico is working closely with the US to secure the border. US customs officials, for example, work with their counterparts in Mexico to secure cargo destined for the US. Containers are inspected as they are loaded, sealed with padlocks and electronic monitors, and scanned by gamma ray detectors before traveling freely throughout North America. One benefit of increased security – as confirmed by Homeland Security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis Charles Allen(2)– is that no terrorist has infiltrated the US via its southern border since 9/11. Both countries are also working to shut down the flow of weapons from the US to Mexican drug syndicates.

Ambassador Sarukhan acknowledged that, despite good relations between high-level officials, mistrust has long been an factor in relations between law enforcement and other officials at the ground level. Now, combined, mutually-vetted units are leading the fight, ensuring excellent cooperation between police and other security officials. The US is providing both training and equipment, like night vision devices, to Mexican police. Both sides are working to develop joint early warning, emergency management, and rapid reaction capabilities. While there is still room for improvement, Ambassador Sarukhan believes great strides have been made.

Though both sides agree on the need to tackle organized crime and secure the border, the Ambassador said that one major area in which consensus has not yet been reached is immigration. Mexico, he said, does not view immigration as a security threat to the US. Instead, it is largely a question of labor mobility, matching labor and capital, and helping the US and Mexico compete together in the global economy. Mexico’s hope is a partnership with the US that generates economic growth to stop the flow of some of Mexico’s most entrepreneurial citizens across the border. The border fence, he said, is not slowing immigration, but is damaging delicate ecosystems and cross-border perceptions. Mexico’s ultimate goal is for every person who crosses the border to do so legally, though an appropriate immigration channel.

Securing the border requires both countries to tackle one of the greatest threats to mutual security, drug syndicates. More than simple smuggling operations, syndicates are a serious threat to the Mexican state, using violence and drug money to undermine rule of law and carve out their own spheres of power. In one drug raid, for example, Mexican forces captured $206 million in cash. These huge sums have generated corruption within the police and government. In order to counter this influence, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed the armed forces to parts of the country where syndicates are particularly strong. Though Ambassador Sarukhan does not believe that giving a police role to the military is the best solution, he believes it is a necessary step while police capacity is reconstituted after years of being corroded by drug money.

As the military bears down on the syndicates, Ambassador Sarukhan believes that violence will increase, especially along the border. As smuggling routes are closed and markets are constricted, syndicates will increasingly battle each other and the government for what remains. Hundreds of police officers and gang members have already been killed in increased fighting. Syndicates are now moving into new areas of crime, including kidnapping, extortion, and human smuggling.

Furthermore, the syndicates are taking on an atomized, cellular structure, with little integrated command and control. As a result, removing kingpins is not an effective solution – leaders are rapidly replaced. While drug interdiction and eradication still have important roles to play, the Ambassador believes that they mostly serve to drive prices up, as demand is largely inelastic. Instead, Mexico is focusing on the “gatekeepers,” those few in each cell who are in contact with other cells. By taking these gatekeepers – and the huge sums of money they exchange – out of the equation, the government hopes to seriously hurt their business.

When asked by Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, about security along Mexico’s infrequently-discussed southern border, Ambassador Sarukhan discussed Mexico’s relations with the rest of Latin America. The border with Guatemala, he said, is very difficult to secure. In response, Mexico has established a “deep defense,” moving security assets to the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Ambassador is afraid that even if smuggling routes are shut down there, they will simply move to countries in the Caribbean. Mexico is working closely with other Central American partners, such as Nicaragua with its effective police force, and with Colombia to “bookend” Central America. Mexico is also seeking to deepen relations with Chile, Peru, and other partners in the Asia-Pacific rim.

The most important challenge for Mexican-US relations, said the Ambassador, is ensuring that both populations are stakeholders in the relationship. Though to outside observers it is obvious, for many in the US and Mexico the importance of the relationship can sometimes be obscured. The relationship is critical to both sides, as each country’s day-to-day security is dependent on the other. The Ambassador closed by calling on both countries’ leaders to take greater risks and make the effort to explain the importance of the US-Mexican partnership to their constituents.

1 http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c2010.html#2008



As part of the May 7th, 2008 Roundtable with Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, the Homeland Security Policy Institute prepared a resource page where you will find some useful links to recent reports, relevant government agencies and other useful information.



"Mexico-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress," Congressional Research Service (23 May 2008)

The United States and Mexico have a close and complex bilateral relationship, with extensive economic linkages. Bilateral relations are generally friendly, although the U.S. enactment of border fence legislation in October 2006 caused some tension in the relationship. Drug trafficking issues are prominent in relations since Mexico is the leading transit country for cocaine, a leading supplier
of methamphetamine and heroin, and the leading foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States. In October 2007, the United States and Mexico announced the Mérida Initiative to combat drug trafficking, gangs, and organized crime in Mexico and Central America. The Administration requested $500 million in FY2008 supplemental assistance for Mexico as part of a $1.4 billion, multi-year aid package for the Initiative. Migration, border security, and trade issues also have dominated the bilateral relationship in recent years.

"Mexico's Drug Cartels," Congressional Research Service (16 Oct 2007)

Mexico, a major drug producing and transit country, is the main foreign supplier of marijuana and a major supplier of methamphetamine to the United States. Although Mexico accounts for only a small share of worldwide heroin production, it supplies a large share of heroin consumed in the United States. An estimated 90% of cocaine entering the United States transits Mexico. Violence in the border region has affected U.S. citizens. More than 60 Americans have been kidnaped in Nuevo Laredo, and in July 2007, Mexican drug cartels reportedly threatened to kill a U.S. journalist covering drug violence in the border region. The United States and Mexico are reportedly negotiating a new counternarcotics initiative.

"Mexico-U.S. Relations: Issues for the 109th Congress," Congressional Research Service (2 June 2005)

Bush Administration officials have regularly praised Mexico’s counter-narcotics efforts under Fox, especially action against major traffickers and efforts to improve the judicial system, and have characterized the bilateral cooperation in this area as unprecedented. The State Department reported in March 2005, however, that Mexico remained the leading transit country for cocaine and that numerous U.S. extradition requests were denied based on the Mexican prohibition against life sentences and capital punishment.

"U.S.-Mexico Economic Relations," Congressional Research Service (11 July 2005)

The bilateral economic relationship with Mexico is among the most important for the United States. The most significant feature of the relationship is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been in effect since 1994. In bilateral trade, Mexico is the United States’ second most important trading partner, while the United States is Mexico’s most important trading partner. In U.S. imports, Mexico ranks third among U.S. trading partners, after Canada and China, while in exports Mexico ranks second, after Canada. The United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Mexico. In 2004, about 13% of total U.S. merchandise exports were destined for Mexico and 10% of U.S. merchandise imports came from Mexico. In the same year U.S. exports to Mexico increased almost 14%, while imports from Mexico increased about 13%. For Mexico, the United States is a much more significant trading partner. Almost 90% of Mexico’s exports go to the United States and about 60% of Mexico’s imports come from the United States. FDI forms another part of the economic relationship between the United States and Mexico. The United States is the largest source of FDI in Mexico, accounting for 65% of total FDI in 2003.

"Radical Groups in Mexico Today," Center for Strategic and International Studies (Sep 2003)

The gradual and incremental pace of democratic governance—and in some cases the out-and-out gridlock that has characterized Mexico since the onset of its democratic transition—provide radical groups with a new battle cry. Whereas before they almost exclusively called for the defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), once alternation in power materialized in 2000 with Vicente Fox’s presidential election victory, that call became superfluous. Nonetheless, many of these groups continue to be disenchanted and may plead for either improved governance or, in some cases, an entirely different system of government. Many of the structural changes that Mexico needs—such as fiscal and energy sector reforms—are likely to generate hostile reactions, be they in the form of verbal or communiqué type of opposition or a more physical and/or violent type of resistance. These reforms may exert an added strain on the marginalized constituencies of these radical groups (be it those living in poverty and/or indigenous segments of the population) or simply appeal to the “globaphobic” bent of some of these groups.

"Latin American Drugs I: Losing the Fight," International Crisis Group (14 March 2008)

Learning from errors, trafficking groups in Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. have become far more difficult to detect by changing from vertically integrated organisations to cell-based structures. Many services along the production and trafficking chain are outsourced to specialised subcontractors who have no knowledge of the rest of organisation. Reliable data on how much cocaine enters Mexico from South American sources and Central American transit countries is unavailable. However, it is generally agreed that in 2006 close to 90 per cent of all cocaine that entered the U.S. came through Mexico. Starting in the early 1980s, increasingly large cocaine trafficking from the Andean region through Mexico has been associated with violence. During that decade and the first half of the 1990s, there was sporadic armed feuding between competing Mexican narco-organisations, such as the Tijuana cartel of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the Gulf cartel of Juan García Ábrego and the Juárez cartel of Amado Carillo Fuentes (“The Lord of the Skies”). However, in comparison to that of the past ten years, violence was still relatively light.

"Latin American Drugs II: Improving Policy and Reducing Harm," International Crisis Group (14 March 2008)

Interdiction along the transit corridors from the Andes has become an increasing U.S. focus. Growing concern for the permeability of the border with Mexico, across which most of the Andean cocaine is transported to the American market, and signs of destabilisation in Guatemala owing to the activities of trafficking groups and organised crime, prompted President Bush and President Felipe Calderón of Mexico to launch the Mérida Initiative in 2007. The chances of passage without modification in the legislature of either country are not good. It reflects, however, the serious difficulties U.S. interdiction policy faces. According to GAO officials, once shipments reach Mexico, “they are as good as in the U.S.”

"Southern Mexico: Counterinsurgency and Electoral Politics," United States Institute of Peace (27 Jan 2008)

Current rebellions in southern Mexico represent clear challenges to the power of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics since 1929 and spring from citizen outrage at the abuse of power by the PRI, particularly at the local level. The current government's strategy has combined conciliatory gestures with military counterinsurgency operations and dialogue in attempts to buy support through generous public works projects, with largely negative results. Both domestic and foreign policy interests of the United States will be adversely affected by a deepening of the conflict. Key concerns include potential increased refugee flows into the United States and continued economic instability in Mexico. Moreover, the U.S. runs the risk, through continued and unmonitored military assistance (ostensibly drug-interdiction related), of becoming entangled with an unpopular regime at the moment of its collapse.

"Drug Control: U.S. Assistance Has Helped Mexican Counternarcotics Efforts, but the Flow of Illicit Drugs into the United States Remains High," Government Accountability Office (25 Oct 2007)

The estimated amount of cocaine arriving in Mexico for transshipment to the United States averaged about 290 metric tons per year. Reported seizures averaged about 36 metric tons a year. The estimated amount of export quality heroin and marijuana produced in Mexico averaged almost 19 metric tons and 9,400 metric tons per year, respectively. Reported heroin seizures averaged less than 1 metric ton and reported marijuana seizures averaged about 2,900 metric tons a year. Although an estimate of the amount of methamphetamine manufactured in Mexico is not prepared, reported seizures along the U.S. border rose from about 500 kilograms in 2000 to highs of about 2,800 kilograms in 2005 and about 2,700 kilograms in 2006. According to U.S. officials, this more than fivefold increase indicated a dramatic rise in supply. Corruption persists within the Mexican government and challenges Mexico’s efforts to curb drug production and trafficking. Moreover, Mexican drug trafficking organizations operate with relative impunity along the U.S. border and in other parts of Mexico, and have expanded their illicit business to almost every region of the United States.

"Mexico-US Dialogue on Migration and Border Issues," Congressional Research Service (2 June 2005)

"International Trade: U.S. Agencies Need Greater Focus to Support Mexico’s Successful Transition to Liberalized Agricultural Trade under NAFTA," Government Accountability Office (March 2005)

News and Resource Links:

New York Times: Mexico

US State Department: Mexico

The Economist: Mexico

BBC Country Profile: Mexico

CIA World Factbook: Mexico

Library of Congress: Mexico

Mexican Government:


Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Secretariat of National Defense

National Security Strategy (in Spanish)



Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan

The grandson of refugees in Mexico, Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan is a career diplomat. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs and was posted in 1993 to the Mexican Embassy in the United States where he first served as Chief of Staff to the Ambassador, and then as head of the counternarcotics office. In 2000 he became Chief of Policy Planning at the Foreign Ministry and was appointed by the President as Mexican Consul General to New York City in 2003. He resigned from this post and took a leave of absence from the Foreign Service in 2006 to join the Presidential Campaign of Felipe Calderón as Foreign Policy Advisor and International Spokesperson, and became Coordinator for Foreign Affairs in the Transition Team. In November 2006 he received the rank of Ambassador, and in February 2007 was appointed Mexican Ambassador to the United States. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Ambassador Sarukhan played a key role in the non-governmental Bilateral Commission on the Future of US-Mexico Relations as the Executive Director of this civil society initiative.Ambassador Sarukhan is active in various organizations such as the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Policy Association and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London; is a board member of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, and is also a part of the Executive Council on Diplomacy Ambassadors Advisory Board. He has taught in various universities and published articles on issues related to foreign policy in a variety of journals and magazines. He holds a BA in International Relations from El Colegio de México and an MA in US Foreign Policy from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he was a Fulbright Scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow. He has been decorated by the governments of Spain and Sweden. Ambassador Sarukhan is married and has two young daughters.



The Ambassadors Roundtable Series is designed to provide Ambassadors to the United States and their key diplomatic staff with a forum to discuss current and future counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts on a regional or country-specific basis. In an effort to draw upon various insights and experiences, the Ambassadors Roundtable Series builds upon and institutionalizes efforts over the past two years to engage in a dialogue with members of the international community, policy makers, and practitioners.