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One City, Two Countries: Manning the Mexican-U.S. Border in Nuevo Laredo

Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr
Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr

Bustling with commerce, illegal border crossings, and cocaine trafficking, in 2000, Nuevo Laredo was the third busiest visa post in the world. Consulate staff had to balance encouraging commerce between the two countries, managing visa traffic, and preventing the movement of deadly narcotics. During his time as Consul General, Thomas Armbruster quickly learned this was a difficult balance to strike. Despite facing internal corruption, rampant narcotics violence, and death threats in pre-9/11 Nuevo Laredo, Armbruster believes that the good mostly outweighed the bad. After 9/11, the relationship between Mexico and the United States changed dramatically. Americans and Mexicans alike had to adapt to a “new normal.”

Thomas Armbruster entered the Foreign Service as a management officer in 1988 and spent much of his career working on environmental issues. He began in Helsinki as Deputy of the Soviet Support Office and went on to do tours in Havana during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arctic during the creation of the Arctic Council. Before he retired, President Obama nominated him as Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, giving him the opportunity to combine his lifelong passions for field work and environmental issues.

Thomas Armbruster’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on November 28, 2018.
Read Thomas Armbruster’s full interview HERE.
Drafted by Lydia Laramore

Excerpts:

“But there was also . . . a feeling that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo were one big city separated by a river.”

One city, two countries: It was the number three visa post in the world so it was very busy. Narco trafficking was beginning to be an issue. Of course, illegal border crossings were an issue. So, I knew it was definitely ground zero for importing cocaine into the United States across the Rio Grande. There are three international bridges, all very busy. But there was also real commerce and industry with Maquiladoras on the Mexican side, you know U.S.-owned factories, and a feeling that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo were one big city separated by a river. At that point the good outweighed the bad in a lot of ways.

“By the end of the trial, we knew the visa adjudicator had taken something like $30,000 in payments to grant people visas illegally.”

Stopping the flow of illegal visas: [The consulate was] very heavy on the consular side. I had a good deputy, Joe DeMaria. I did not have a political officer. It was really dedicated to doing visas and American citizen services. We had three prisons with Americans that we would visit. We did some commercial and cultural events, but for the most part we were trying to keep up with the visas. We were until we figured out that one of our staff was selling visas on the side.

My deputy was pretty much acting as the head of the consular section. He is the one who saw the discrepancy. At that time, we were doing some visa adjudications outside of the consulate. We would have excursions to other towns. When he was looking at the data, he said more people were coming for interviews than had been scheduled. And then picked up a pattern of approvals enough to signal to him there was something going on. . . . So, we brought diplomatic security in, they put in hidden cameras and for weeks they built their case so they could prosecute this American, which they did. By the end of the trial we knew the visa adjudicator had taken something like $30,000 in payments to grant people visas illegally. . . . He ended up spending five years in jail. We closed the consulate. We were then issuing zero visas for a while. We fired the entire guard staff. I got a death threat. It was pretty tense. . . . Of course, the Department ended doing any of these visa outreach excursions, and they also had only American Foreign Service Officers adjudicate. Many of our adjudicators were civil service officers from the border area and that practice was ended.

“I got information on where they were buried and I told the Mexicans, you guys are going to get them back for us.”
Thomas Armbruster (2015) | Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Armbruster (2015) | Wikimedia Commons

Narcotics violence on the border: Meanwhile, we still had a lot of Americans caught up in the narco-violence. I had one case in particular of a young American girl who was kidnapped by narcos along with her friend, who actually was in the narcotics business. They were both tortured. He was buried alive. She was raped and tortured as well. I got information on where they were buried and I told the Mexicans, you guys are going to get them back for us. They brought the army out, lit the searchlights, cordoned off the streets and exhumed those two Americans and we got them back to their families. That was emblematic of the beginning of a very violent period on the border.

My first week, maybe even my first day on the job I was interviewed by one of the Nuevo Laredo reporters, and he asked. “What is your priority?” I said narco-violence is really a threat to the economy of both countries and we need to do what we can to reduce the narco-trade. The next day in the paper they had the interview and it said, “what is your first priority?” I said, according to the edited version, “it was to increase tourism and trade between our two countries.” The reporter knew that if he printed the original answer it would have been very dangerous for me.

“The border crossings that had been so easy . . . became a nightmare.”

Manning the border after 9/11: Q: What were your numbers per year of applicants let’s say?
It would be hard for me to give you a number except we were right up there with the busiest posts in the world. Hundreds of thousands of interviews.

Q: And these were mostly visitor visas or a fair amount of immigrant as well?

Then people would send their kids across to Laredo to go to school and you know there is just a lot of back and forth, just normal travel. The refusal rate wasn’t terribly high. I don’t know what it was, but you know we have workers, businessmen, students, we had just everybody. Certainly family, but a lot of people would just cross to go shopping and then go back. Until 9/11 it was very easy five minutes to cross the border. “Are you an American citizen?” “Yes.” “Have a nice day.”

Q: How did 9/11 change things for you?

Everything. President Bush and President Fox were very close to an immigration agreement before 9/11 happened. That was going to reform the system and make it easier for many Mexicans to travel to the U.S., work seasonally and go back home, because most people want to do that. They want to work and then go back and see their families. That whole effort was ended. The border crossings that had been so easy, really you just present yourself at the border and state your citizenship and off you go, became a nightmare. It just became hours and hours. . . . I remember asking the Mexican consul general “When is this ever going to get back to normal?” He said, “This is the new normal.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Political Science, Western Maryland College                                                             1976–1980
MS in International Relations and National Security Studies, Naval War College      2003–2004
Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                               1988
Moscow, Russia—Nuclear Affairs Officer                                                                              1997–2000
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico—Consul General                                                                               2000–2002
Dushanbe, Tajikistan—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                 2004–2007
Vladivostok, Russia—Consul General                                                                                    2007–2010
Marshall Islands—Ambassador                                                                                               2012–2016