The United States and Mexico have long agreed that they would notify one another if either planned to build a dam on a Rio Grande tributary. So it came as a surprise, earlier this year, when Stephen Niemeyer learned that Mexico had built such a dam just south of the Texas border.
Mr. Niemeyer, a policy analyst at the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, read about it on the Internet. "It was not ideal that we learned about it on [a Mexican federal] Web site," he deadpans.
In fact, Mexico had notified US federal authorities, but the story highlights an irony of cross border communication at the dawn of a new century: Even as states on both sides have been forging ever closer ties over the past decade, they are too often left out of the loop by the federal governments.
Now, as Vicente Fox takes office as Mexico's new president today, many along the border hope it will mark a new era of empowerment for border states, which could in turn foster improved communications.
The expectation is that Mr. Fox, a former state governor, recognizes that states are ready and willing to do more and will loosen the reins. "The horse is already galloping," Niemeyer says.
Border cooperation is at an all-time high, in part because the North American Free Trade Agreement has increased commercial traffic. In Texas, the state through which many of the trucks flow, officials have advocated decentralization in Mexico as a means of streamlining transborder decisions.
"There are so many things that happen on a day-to-day basis that don't need the rubberstamping of the federal governments," says Jorge Garces, Mexico liaison for the Texas secretary of state.
But Mexico's federal system is highly centralized, leaving states less free than their US counterparts to coordinate directly across the border without federal permission.
This can create a bureaucratic version of the game "telephone," with information passed from a Mexican state up to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, over to the US Department of State, then down to the neighboring US state.
"We want information to come from the Mexican states," Niemeyer says. "But that change can't be accomplished overnight. Mexican law will need to be changed."
Henry Nevares, international-relations director at the Texas Department of Transportation, tells how the Mexican state of Tamaulipas is building a state highway that will significantly change traffic flows into Brownsville, Texas. But because Mexican federal officials do not consider this state road part of their federal highway system, it was not reported to Mr. Nevares.
Nevares heard of the project through state-level contacts. Without the information, Texas would have faced a sudden rise in crossings into Brownsville, without knowing why.
Sometimes miscommunications stem simply from ignorance about the other nation's authority system: Mexican federal agencies don't realize that US states have jurisdiction over issues that in Mexico are federal. They'll contact US authorities when they should be talking with the states.
US states have gently nudged the idea of greater Mexican-state autonomy by consistently inviting those states to joint meetings, in part to lobby their respective federal governments as a bloc. Ties among the 10 states span issues from technology to environment.
The efforts are slowly earning states a place at the table with the two federal governments. Nevares recalls that a few years ago, the US State Department and Mexico's Foreign Relations Ministry began quarterly meetings on transportation and border crossings.
At first, there was no state presence from either nation. The states lobbied to be included, and now he says federal officials clearly value state input.
Looking forward, many in the US are expect the new Fox government to push more power to Mexican states. "[Mexico] has had a growing realization that they need to improve state capacity," says William Glade, a Mexico expert at the University of Texas at Austin.
While the devolution of power in Mexico won't happen overnight, it promises to be a force for greater democracy, freer markets, and less judicial corruption, predicts Clark Ervin, a deputy attorney general for Texas. All of that, he says, "augers for even more cooperation between Texas and Mexico."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society