At last report, the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico was behind schedule and over budget. A GAO study (from August 2008) reported that the Department of Homeland Security has completed only 341 miles of the border barrier, and costs associated with the project were rising. Currently, a mile of pedestrian fence is running about $7.5 million and a similar stretch of vehicle fence costs about $2.8 million. Labor shortages and land acquisition issues are also hampering the effort.
To his credit, President-elect Barack Obama has supported the border fence, and perhaps the project will take on new urgency when he takes office. If Mr. Obama needs additional justification, he should take a look at a new report from U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), based in Norfolk, Virginia.
In its Joint Operating Environment report for 2008, the command offers a dire assessment of the situation in Mexico, lumping that category in the same category as Pakistan--vulnerable to a "rapid and sudden collapse," according to JFCOM.
This isn't the first time that U.S. intelligence analysts have voiced those concerns about Pakistan. While the JFCOM report marks one of the few times that a military or intel organization has expressed public worries about the future of Mexico, it is consistent with a recent trend.
The assessment is generating a fair amount of media attention, particularly in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border. But a couple of caveats are in order. First, the primary mission of JFCOM is the transformation of military forces, not geopolitical analysis. Secondly, the organization's intelligence directorate is small in comparison to, say, CENTCOM, and historically, JFCOM hasn't been a major player in the analytical business.
But the command's leadership clearly understand the impact of this report, and it's virtually certain that the assessment was coordinated through other intel organizations. JFCOM wouldn't issue its warning about Mexico without some degree of support. Indeed, many of the concerns outlined in the command report have been echoed in recent summaries by the Department of Homeland Security and retired Army General Barry McCaffrey.
As JFCOM sees it, the Mexican government--and its institutions--are under sustained, serious attack, putting it at risk for a potential collapse:
"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."
Conditions in Mexico represent a growing challenge for the intel community, which has (historically) devoted fewer resources to Latin America. Additionally, intelligence organizations have usually viewed the "threat" in terms of Cuba and more recently, Venezuela. Transnational issues in the region receive less coverage (although reporting on guerrilla factions in Colombia is an exception), and Mexico has long been a low priority target. In fact, one "knock" against the recently-retired CIA Director of Operations was that he "cut his teeth" in the agency's Latin America division.
That is about to change--or should change--in the coming years. As for the border fence, it wouldn't stop the human tsunami that would crash against our borders after a Mexican collapse. But it would provide needed assistance in controlling the flow of refugees. Completing the fence should be a national priority--just in case JFCOM's prediction comes true.