Hemispheric Militarization in “Free Trade” Guise

by Laura Carlsen, CIP Americas Program

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated and signed in the early 90s, few people were thinking about its security implications. Environmentalists objected, fearing a corporate race to exploit natural resources and produce industrial wastes where environmental regulation and enforcement was weakest. Labor objected, arguing that companies would move jobs to where organized labor and workers’ rights were most vulnerable. There was vague talk about improving trinational relations and promoting joint foreign policy agendas, but the goal of a broader North American alliance remained formally off the table in order to steer the agreement through a reluctant US Congress.

The resulting pact was called a trade agreement, but is really a trade and investment agreement with significant changes in other areas important to transnational business, including expanded intellectual property protections. It was not until after the Bush administration came into power and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 provided the rationale for adoption of the Bush National Security Doctrine that security issues took center stage in the regional integration model.

In March 2005, the leaders of the three countries met in Waco, Texas, and agreed to form the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The agreement was a “Washington-led” initiative, according to the US SPP website, which describes its founding principle like this: “The SPP is based on the principle that our prosperity is dependent on our security and recognizes that our three great nations share a belief in freedom, economic opportunity, and strong democratic institutions.”

In practice, the deep imbalance of power between the three nations has meant that the SPP was designed and implemented to bring the other two partners into the Bush counterterrorism paradigm. Although this paradigm had been widely repudiated by other nations in the world for its justification of unilateral action, preemptive strikes, executive power, and restriction of civil libertiesā€”and particularly for the unpopular invasion of Iraqā€”Canada and Mexico by this time had developed such strong dependence on the US market that they were obliged to adopt the SPP.

The SPP does not have a text that can be reviewed or a unitary set of goals and objectives. Nor was it subject to parliamentary approval or oversight. This was intentional. After the battle to pass NAFTA in the US Congress and amid growing criticism of the agreement in all three countries, the governments wanted to avoid opening up a public debate on the issues. The information available on the SPP comes from what the executive branches choose to reveal on PR-oriented websites and in declarations that obscure as much as they reveal. The alarming way that NAFTA expanded its reach without public or even legislative agreement, as well as the secrecy of SPP proceedings, have been the principle sources of concern over the initiative.

The Bush National Security Doctrine of 2002 is a radical departure from previous formal precepts, if not practices, and the most grandiose expression of US hegemony since the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine explicitly links trade and security as two pillars of a vision that posit that what is good for the United States (as defined by the Bush administration and neoconservative architects of the plan) is good for the world. Although better known for formulating the change from containment to regime change, the document dedicates an entire chapter to asserting a fundamental relationship between free markets and US national security. Chapter VI, entitled “Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade” begins by assuming a causal chain between the free trade model, economic growth and prosperity, and national security.

It is therefore not surprising that NAFTA, the pioneer US-style trade agreement, also became the first FTA to be officially expanded into security. The goals are twofold: to apply the Bush counterterrorism model throughout North America and bring Canadian and Mexican national security apparatus under closer US control and surveillance, and to protect investment and business throughout the region. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Shannon put it succinctly when he said that the SPP “understands North America as a shared economic space,” one that “we need to protect.” He added: “To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA.”

In brief, the SPP consists of working groups in various areas that produce recommendations to the governments. These are not released to the public, generally speaking, and are either adopted behind the scenes as rule changes or sent up as legislation with no sign of their SPP origins. The working groups are made up of government officials and business representatives. The North American Competitiveness Council was formed within the SPP of executives of the region’s largest and most powerful transnational corporations to make sure that the extension of NAFTA was guided by their interests and their interests alone.

Although the governments have issued numerous statements affirming that security and prosperity go together like love and marriage, NAFTA’s “natural” expansion of reach into the SPP has brought about a series of unnatural contradictions. Because the SPP includes no representation of labor, environmental, or citizen groups, these groups are often the ones whose rights and interests are violated by the proceedings of NAFTA-SPP. The SPP orientation to business and Bush geopolitical aims has compounded rather than resolved the worst contradictions of NAFTA.

Two examples suffice to illustrate the point: while NAFTA-SPP steadfastly refuses to deal with increased immigration as an issue of regional integration, the security section criminalizes the victims of the prosperity section. In other words, migrants driven from their livelihoods by the loss of their own local and national markets to imports are defined as international threats and subject to a series of enforcement-only measures under the SPP security section. This includes what are, in essence, preemptive strikes against Central American immigrants before they even near the US border. For this task, the US government has deputized the Mexican government, which had previously had a liberal view toward Central American refugees and immigrants, and given it millions of dollars worth of intelligence and military equipment to crack down on “human smuggling networks.”

Another example of the double standard inherent in the SPP regarding the treatment of goods and people is what might be called the “No Fly on the Open Skies” policy toward Canada. Under its list of achievements, the SPP lists, “The United States and Canada reached a full Open-Skies aviation agreement, removing all economic restrictions on air service to, from, and beyond one another’s territory by the airlines of both countries. The agreement will encourage new markets’ development, lower prices, and greater competition.” What is not mentioned in the great achievements section is that the US government has also enforced a “no fly” policy on Canada that restricts air travel of a long list, including activists, individuals with Arab names similar to suspects, and others. It has also raised grave issues of sovereignty and caused many to question whether security as defined under the SPP is really a lasting security for our three countries.

Perhaps the best example of where the SPP leads us is Plan Mexico. Originally, US promoters predicted that regional economic integration under NAFTA would work toward resolving other binational issues, including security issues. In the words of President Bush Sr. in 1991, “By boosting economic prosperity in Mexico, Canada, and the United States, it will help us move forward on issues that concern all of us. Issues such as drugs and education, immigration, and the environment.”

We now know that the reverse occurred. For complex reasons not all attributable to NAFTA of course, North America now faces security threats unimagined in 1991. In Mexico, since the launching of the war on drugs by incoming President Felipe CalderĆ³n in January of 2007, the nation has seen an explosion of drug-related violence. No one would argue that the problem of organized crime in Mexico is not real and has not reached alarming proportions. Within the SPP, negotiations began to design a US military aid package that resulted in the “MĆ©rida Initiative,” officially described as a “regional security cooperation initiative.”

The Merida Initiative, more commonly known as “Plan Mexico” for its close similarities to Plan Colombiaā€”the other major military aid package of the US government in the hemisphereā€”provides an example of the direction of the security element of NAFTA since, unlike other SPP measures, its basic outlines are at least known. Plan Mexico required authorization from the US Congress for appropriation of $400 million to Mexico.

Although obtaining detailed information about the plan has been far more difficult than it should be, given that it is a taxpayer-funded initiative, we do know that it closely follows the script of extending US military and intelligence presence in NAFTA partner territory. Plan Mexico funds military equipment and training for the Mexican army to the tune of $116 million. This includes surveillance planes and helicopters. Although the plan does not include troop presenceā€”a political flash-point in Mexican societyā€”it does increase the use of US trainers, mercenary groups, or private security companies, and members of other agencies such as the DEA and Tobacco and Firearms Control.

The plan was presented by President Bush in October of 2007 as a $1.4 billion, multi-year security cooperation initiative with Mexico and Central America to combat the threats of drug trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorism that undermine security not only in these countries, but also in the United States. Approved by the US Congress last year, the MĆ©rida Initiative will, in the words of a State Department summary, “build a new strategic partnership with Mexico and the Central America countries; bolster homeland security by impeding the flow of transnational criminal activity and strengthening state institutions in Mexico and Central America; and increase the prospects of breaking down criminal organizations by building on successes of the Mexican government in the past year, including increased extraditions, police restructuring and legal reforms, and recent very large cocaine seizures.”

The phrase “impeding the flow of transnational criminal activity” indicates the underlying logic of the plan. Despite the hype, it is not really a binational cooperation initiative. There are no obligations for the United States regarding criminal activities in its own territory, notably gun-running, illegal drug trafficking, or money laundering. Criminal activity is portrayed as a contagion that spreads south to north.

This image deflects attention from the dismal failure of the United States in controlling its own illegal drug use and sales, and justifies US intervention in Mexico’s national security apparatus to an unprecedented degree.

The US government will now be responsible for designing and monitoring centralized intelligence systems, military equipment, and training in the police, justice, and penal systems. This type of plan differs considerably from a model of cooperation, where police and military forces share best practices and Mexico is free to contract consultant services from regions of the world with a proven track record in fighting organized crime.

In addition, the militarized approach to fighting organized crime, couched in terms of the counterterrorism model of the Bush administration, presents serious threats to civil liberties and human rights. In Mexico, this has already been clear particularly among four vulnerable groups: members of political opposition, women, indigenous peoples, and migrants. Corresponding legislation pushed by the United States that adopts broad measures against “international terrorism” (virtually non-existent in Mexico) has led to a flurry of protests by human rights groups and legal experts. Because Mexico cannot receive any cash under Plan Mexico, the entire appropriations package translates into juicy contracts for arms manufacturers, mercenary firms, and US defense and intelligence agencies.

Perhaps the deepest criticism of the SPP-Plan Mexico model has to do with the concept of sovereignty. Some people have declared this concept obsolete in the era of globalization. And yet it remains fundamental to international relations simply because nations are the entities involved. No matter how economically integrated, North America is a region of three nations that share values but have very different geopolitical and human security priorities. In defining their security agendas, they should not forge a common identity under the hammer of the strongest, but seek mechanisms of cooperation for the well-being of all their people.

It may seem ironic to refer to “NAFTA’s dangerous security agenda.” Security, after all, aims to keep people safe. Yet under the SPP, with the exception of health epidemics and food safety measures, most of the work has been oriented toward guarding infrastructure and business, and focusing on military approaches to crime rather than looking to root causes such as poverty and marginalizationā€”in many cases by-products of NAFTA itself. This enforcement approach is dangerous because it does not work, and it militarizes society.

In sum, the SPP has opened the door to secretive and dangerous negotiations on both economic integration and security issues. All of these discussions must be taken to the public in all three countries. To do that, we must subject NAFTA and the SPP to a complete overhaul.

In the case of the SPP, the entire structure was adopted and expanded without public or congressional consent and should be abolished. A review by Congress can determine which working groups should continue under the framework of NAFTA and how their composition can be changed to reflect the real and diverse interests of society. The same should be done in the other countries, as well.


Laura Carlsen is director of the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program in Mexico.

This story first appeared Jan. 23 on the website of the CIP Americas Program.


Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America

North American Competitiveness Council

National Security Doctrine of 2002…

See also:

Right-Wing Paranoia Misses the Real Threat of NAFTA’s Militarization
by Laura Carlsen, IRC Americas Program
World War 4 Report, April 2008

From our Daily Report:

NAFTA boosted Mexican immigration: study
World War 4 Report, Jan. 25, 2009

US releases first tranche of Plan Mexico funds
World War 4 Report, Dec. 5, 2008

NAFTA partners extend SPP at “Three Amigos” summit
World War 4 Report, April 24, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution