Customs and Border Protection Deputy Assistant Commissioner Erik Moncayo knows that protecting the nation begins far away from physical borders, crafting and nurturing a network of global partnerships through his Office of International Affairs to not only interdict contraband but strengthen the security apparatus at points of origin or transit.
Speaking with HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent CBP Day in Arlington, Va., Moncayo, when asked about Mexico’s historical challenges with corruption, stressed that dealing with internal issues has not diminished our southern neighbor’s effectiveness and value as a partner fighting cartel crime.
“One thing that I’ve personally seen with the last three presidents has been a consistent focus on trying to root out cartels and cartel violence associated with it,” he said, adding that “what they require is information that they can action in order to be able to do that.”
“And so what ends up happening over the years is that we end up settling into relationships where there’s trust, elements within these agencies that we leverage time and time again, and that’s really how we were able to make that a productive relationship – by using better teams or trusting partnerships in order to relay the information necessary to equip them for success.”
Asked how it’s been to work with the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as opposed to the last Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, Moncayo replied that “they’ve all done something a little differently,” but fighting cartels has been for both “a key component, a key pillar of their campaign and their strategy.”
“Felipe Calderón brought the military into the fight,” he added. “Since then every president has sustained that as the primary area of focus for them: security and stability. And so the current president is no different – that’s a key pillar of his engagements up to this point.”
Going outside of Latin America, Moncayo said Americans could be surprised “to see the level of sophistication that a lot of other governments and other agencies have” to conduct their enforcement efforts as a complement to U.S. enforcement efforts. “It really goes back to GDP and what are they working with, how much money they have to spend on themselves. And usually the countries that are in the top 20, top 30, they have enough bandwidth, financial boundaries to be able to put in place functional systems, functional processes. And so those are the ones that are really easy … it becomes an issue of harmonizing information, things like that, so that way we can have a kind of real-time relationship. We relay information to them. They relay it back to us and it’s all automated, real-time.”
Countries of more modest fiscal means “want to get there but they don’t have the capability to do that; they’re very interested in modeling themselves around the way the U.S. does it or the way the West does it and so they’re very receptive to our advice and offers of support.”
“Because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to be able to do it themselves, we have to leverage the State Department, we have to leverage organizations and development banks in order to help them come along, but they’re typically very eager to make the adjustments or enhancements that we’re encouraging them to do because it’s in their domestic best interest.”
Moncayo said ports of entry “are a really good example” of how private industry comes into this development picture. “One of the things that’s hurting South and Central America is the highway infrastructure, the telecom infrastructure and the port of entry infrastructure. And so the private sector struggles to do business in Central America because all those things are lacking,” he said. “When we can get the private sector to make some of those investments, that kind of offsets the limitation that the public sector has – whether it’s the host nation, the U.S. government, other governments that are willing to lend a hand, anything that the private sector can chip into that. It just helps get everybody to where we want to be.”
“I can go over there and I can talk about facilitation and virtual inspections and all the other things, but if they don’t have computers and they don’t have a paved road to get there, if they don’t have a canopy to do an inspection, then it’s all for naught.”
One enforcement area that is “definitely important” is arms trafficking, Moncayo said. “And so that goes back to the information analysis, risk analysis, risk segmentation – if we can get to a point where we have harmonized inbound screening procedures, then we can identify those cargo containers that need to be looked at, pull those out and search them.”
“This is the premise behind the Container Security Initiative we have all over the world where we identify cargo that’s high-risk. And then we advise the host nation, hey, look, that cargo is passing through or stopping here. It presents a high risk based on these data elements,” he continued. “And then that host nation will work with the shipper to pull it off the line, open it up, inspect it and, if there’s something there, there’s something there; if not, they can get it back on the ship. But it goes back to that same model that we use domestically – we can’t search every cargo container that’s coming into the United States, so we screen and we do analysis to determine which ones present the highest risk.”
“That’s the model that we try to get others to emulate, and part of that is harmonizing the way that they collect their data. That way we can come up with a common process for screening and then sharing the search techniques and tactics that we use. That way they can pull it off and search it, make sure that they find whatever’s in there.”
Some smuggling isn’t happening in cargo containers, like the fentanyl pipeline from China that’s coming into the U.S. via regular mail.
“Right now, if you’re going to get on a plane, if you’re going to ship cargo into the United States, we have all the information well in advance, so we’re not going to let something or someone come into the country unannounced,” Moncayo said. “The loophole had been mail – that people didn’t have to declare all the information in advance if you’re going to mail something. That was the loophole that was being exploited by these fentanyl organizations. And so the Stop Act has implemented the requirements that information needs to be issued in advance, that way we can screen high-risk mail. But if we’re only screening on our end, then we’re only creating a logjam on the other side. And so we need to get, for instance, the Chinese or whomever the partner is on the other end of the journey to be able to implement similar tactics, that way they’re screening that cargo before it gets to the airport or before it leaves the airport.”
When people want to see quick solutions in the enforcement sphere, how does one sell stakeholders from the U.S. government to international partners on investing in long-term solutions to root causes?
“Results for all parties – that is a requirement. But I never sell a quick fix without leaving the bill for the long-term solution,” Moncayo said. “That’s really it for us. It’s a mantra that we have to keep hitting every single time we do something. For instance, if I can make a phone call, if I can leverage a relationship that I have to get someone to interdict something or to hold something or to stop something, barring some formal program that we have in place that’s a quick way to improve the security of the supply chain. And I can speak to everybody and say look at this at this: We got the objective we wanted, but that’s a one-off. In order to do this, we have to do these other things, that way it’s sustainable.”
“Some of these things are informal, some of these things are really formal where there are signed agreements and systems that are automated to talk to each other if we can,” he added. “In pursuit of the long game, we always have to be willing to take the quick wins – that way we can keep these programs and relationships moving forward.”
Asked what kind of investment is needed in the agency’s foreign relations and partnership efforts to not only sustain gains but move further, Moncayo noted that “like anybody else, we’re resource constrained – we need to get to a point where we can better quantify the value of a partnership.”
“Because a lot of it is nuanced — when I hear people talk about analytics and things like that, what I’m seeing in my mind is if we could figure a way to quantify the value of a relationship, the value of partnerships, and there’s a way to get there but that’s where I think we need to evolve to,” he said. “That way it’s a lot easier for us to be able to make that argument to Congress. This is why we need resources and fiscal investment into the work we’re doing in international space.”