U.S.-Mexico Relations: Disorder at the Border

Times Staff Writer

The summer of 1980 was dry in Mexico. Crops and livestock died. Pressured to explain the disaster, Mexico’s weather forecasting service chief suggested a U.S. hurricane-tracking aircraft might be the culprit. Checking on that idea, a university researcher reported the only explanation for Mexico’s stolen rain was “the deliberate and effective program carried out by the United States.” Newspapers across Mexico went on a three-week spree of anti-American attacks.

The tempest may now appear silly, of course. But for Robert A. Pastor and Jorge G. Castaneda--experts in international relations--the episode was symbolic of U.S.-Mexican relations, often a zany but dangerous mix of laughing gas and explosives.

This example of suspicion, hyperbole and fantasy is one of many the two cite in their survey of the connections, shared interests, disparities and mutual dilemmas of the United States and Mexico in their unusual book “Limits to Friendship: The United States and Mexico” (Alfred A. Knopf).


It is a relationship that flirts with anarchy, in Pastor’s metaphorical view.

“I think it’s sometimes useful to visualize U.S.-Mexican relations as a three-ring circus--a lot of animals on the trapezes--in which the ringmaster doesn’t have complete control of all the animals,” Pastor said in a joint interview with Castaneda. “He succeeds if the animals do not eat up the fans. . . . And I think by and large the two Presidents are the ringmasters and they have succeeded by and large in keeping the animals from eating up the fans. . . . In fact, I think that should be the criterion for U.S.-Mexican relations--not whether they can be controlled, not whether they can be managed, but whether they can be kept from going too far out of control.”

Abundant Misperceptions

“Limits of Friendship” is unusual because it is an extended debate with alternating chapters presenting the Mexican and American views on issues such as economics, immigration, drugs, education, foreign policy and, perhaps most important, the abundant misperceptions each country has of the other.

Perhaps most broadly, both authors agree, Mexican attitudes are shaped by the history of U.S.-Mexico relations, in which Mexico has lost territory and treasure at the hands of American expansionists. But while Mexicans remember the past, Americans are largely forgetful and tend to see issues, such as drugs, only in their current contexts.

The drug issue, in fact, seems to define the gulf between the two countries. In Mexico, the authors note, the U.S. drug problem is seen as one of demand--if so many Americans didn’t use them there wouldn’t be a drug epidemic. The Mexicans also tend to see the drug problem as less important than Americans, Pastor and Castaneda say.

But while Americans tend to see Mexico as a source of drugs and the corruption that accompanies trafficking, Mexicans see the U.S. as a major source of moral corruption.

In 1987, for example, a Mexico City newspaper reported that some of the city’s children--including 100 female students at one school--were calling Los Angeles “Dial-a-Porn” numbers. A parent lamented, “We seem helpless in the face of this invasion of vice from the United States.”


Yet the differences may not mean much in the long run. Both Pastor and Castaneda are convinced the two countries are in the process of runaway economic integration. As Castaneda writes, “Obscene phone conversations, undocumented immigration, illegal drug traffic and money laundering, and incalculable capital flight are all part of an increasingly unimpeded, booming, and unmanaged intercourse of goods, services, and individuals, knowledge and information, money and customs, which is removing the two nation’s economic relations from their respective governments’ hands without placing them under alternative forms of administraton.”

Despite their own personal differences over policy, Pastor and Castaneda traded places before writing their book; Pastor moved to Mexico City to teach, while Castaneda spent two years in Washington. (Pastor is now a political science professor at Emory University and was director of Latin American Affairs on the National Security Council in the Carter Administration. Castaneda is a political science and international relations professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.)

Shift in Perspective

Pastor recalled: “The reason I wanted to go down to Mexico was that when I left the U.S. government, I left with a question, which is, ‘Why is it more difficult to reach understandings with Mexicans who have (earned) graduate degrees in the United States than with Cuban intelligence agents?’ ”

Somewhat wryly, he noted that the shift in perspective was enormous. “I left the government where I felt repeatedly frustrated over the ability to grab ahold of policy in Mexico,” he explained. “I went to Mexico City, and you pick up the newspapers every day and the United States is controlling everything. What happened?”

By writing a book “with a Mexican nationalist,” Pastor believed he “could better understand what Mexico was about.”

A New Understanding

Both immediately realized, Pastor said, “that the time for platitudes has passed and our relationship is not improved by these generalizations that mean nothing, that it’s much more useful for Americans and Mexicans to understand why we are repeatedly frustrated in dealing with each other than why we should all be such good friends.”

In the interview, differences between the two nations--and the authors--surfaced repeatedly. It was best illustrated in a long exchange on the controversy over a proposed 4-mile ditch to be dug by the United States at the border near San Diego. Announced in late January, the ditch, whose fate now is much in doubt, immediately raised howls in Mexico and the U.S. Federal officials said the ditch was aimed at stopping drug smugglers who drive across the border at that point, as well as improving drainage in the area.

The debate--edited for length--between Pastor and Castaneda went this way:

Pastor: “. . . It’s a 4-mile ditch but the controversy makes it appear as if it’s 2,000 miles. And the argument against it is always the same, ‘How silly these Americans are to think it can stop this flow of people from the south just by putting up a 4-mile ditch.’ But that’s not the issue at all. We cannot stop the flow. The question is can we manage it a little bit better and I think the 4-mile ditch might very well manage that flow . . . But of course Mexico views these issues in much more cataclysmic terms.”

Castaneda: “It’s very difficult for Americans to understand why people in Mexico can get so upset over something which in the first place is perfectly legitimate. From a legal point of view, every country wants to defend its borders or at least clearly mark its borders and only let in those whom it wants to let in legally. The reason why you have this kind of a feeling in Mexico . . . is that ditches and fences are always made to keep out undesirables . . . And nobody likes to be considered an undesirable.”

Pastor: “192 million people each year cross that border coming north. Those people cross legally. America welcomes them. It’s the people who are unwilling to cross legally that America has the legitimate, sovereign right to keep out.”

Castaneda: “One of the reasons for uproar in Mexico was that the ditch happened at a time when some people thought there was going to be a honeymoon between the two new administrations (of Presidents Bush and Salinas). All of a sudden, you have the ditch. So, in a sense, the Mexican government got painted into a corner where people were saying, ‘How can you speak of a honeymoon and good relations when they’re up there digging ditches to keep us out?’ Obviously, the government had to react in a traditional way, ‘Well we think this is unacceptable and we hope they won’t build the ditch.’ Now (Immigration and Naturalization Service head Alan C.) Nelson would come up an say, ‘Not only are they wrong but we’re going to build the ditch and we’re going to build it now. Work began yesterday.’ ”

Later, Pastor conceded the United States itself is ambivalent about its attempts to manage the border. “. . . frankly we don’t like viewing ourselves as (building) a giant fence that keeps out Mexicans. I think, overall, we tolerate the situation on the border because it’s compatible with some of our economic interests and it’s compatible with some of our psychological interests as a nation. (But) I think overall the situation is getting out of control . . .”

Castaneda responded, “The United States has got to decide what it wants in Mexico, not that it’s going to have what it wants.”

Grumped Pastor: “Once it decides what it wants, the Mexicans will tell us we can’t have it.”