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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Mexico Seeks Shared Border Security Plan

Diplomacy: Meetings today in U.S. will weigh uniform visa standards, ways to provide data.

November 19, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government will propose to U.S. homeland security czar Thomas J. Ridge a coordinated approach to border security, which could include harmonizing visa requirements for visitors from third countries, Mexican officials say.

In meetings scheduled today in Washington, Mexican officials want to explore ways to share information about visitors arriving in their nation so that potential terrorists can be spotted quickly, a senior Mexican official said.

Such an exchange of information would form part of a proposed "North American security bubble" in which the United States, Canada and Mexico all work closely to identify terrorism suspects or other security threats, the official said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity, in part because of the sensitivity in Mexico to any perceived surrender of sovereignty to the United States. Such intense cooperation with the U.S. would probably need approval from the Mexican Congress, and the ideas have not yet been widely debated here.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S.-Mexico meeting--A story Monday in Section A incorrectly stated that Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda planned to meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this week to discuss immigration reform. In fact, the meeting will be attended by lower-level government representatives.

The Mexican delegation, led by National Security Advisor Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, will include national heads of immigration, customs, civil aviation and intelligence.

On Tuesday, Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda will meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Washington to renew discussions about reforming immigration laws. That debate moved forward at the summit between Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox just days before Sept. 11 but has been virtually frozen since the attacks on the United States.

Mexico wants to renew the immigration debate by putting it in the context of improved cross-border security. The argument is that the best way to boost security is to legalize--and thus be able to monitor more closely--some of the more than 3 million Mexican illegal immigrants now living north of the border.

On the security agenda, the official said, the Mexican government has been moving urgently in recent weeks to create a computerized national database on all arrivals and departures. Once the system is fully operational, Mexico could link with U.S. agencies to identify terrorism suspects and coordinate a response, he said.

Such coordination would allow instant identification in, say, Cancun of an arriving passenger considered by U.S. officials to be a security threat.

Another idea would be for the two nations to "synchronize" visa requirements for third-country nationals so that both would have similar standards for approving visitors, the official said. Given U.S. concerns that terrorists could enter Mexico or Canada and then cross more easily into the U.S., such an approach would add uniformity.

"The key buzzword is coordination," the official said.

Such steps would involve costly technology for which the U.S. and Mexico would need to work out financing, he added.

Mexico is anxious to ensure that heightened security doesn't create even more bottlenecks at border crossings, where transit time for commercial as well as passenger traffic has in many cases doubled or tripled since Sept. 11.

Therefore Mexico is prepared to explore ideas such as basing in Mexico for U.S. Customs agents who could inspect and seal containers for shipment into the United States. That would reduce costly delays at the border, but it would doubtless provoke a debate in Mexico over sovereignty.

Mexico also has stepped up security in recent weeks along its notoriously porous southern border with Guatemala and Belize. Mexico intends to expand the number of legal entry ports and at the same time clamp down on the flow of illegal immigrants at informal crossings--sometimes within sight of the legal border posts.

"What we want to guard against is that Mexico is perceived as a threat to U.S. security," the official said. "We are doing things that are in our own interest, but we also don't want the U.S. to put a stranglehold on the border because that will have a major impact on Mexican development.

"We are going to prove," he added, "that security can be achieved without breaking the fluidity that is essential to economic development."

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