Tequila and U.S.-Mexican Security Relations


You sit down at the table and take a moment to get comfortable in your dress uniform. The three general officers at the table have been amicable enough, highlighting the facility and extending military courtesies like pros, but it has been a long day and you are starving. You might not know Mexico very well, but Mexican food is a different story. Diving into a cut of arrachera, avocado, and beans instantly improves your mood.

A soldier comes by the table and pours double shots of alcohol from a large brown bottle into the glasses on the table. Damn, you think, tequila. Well hell, guess it’s time to man up and show these guys I’m no lightweight! You slam it. It is surprisingly smooth! The smile across your face disappears when you notice that the three generals are staring at you, one is trying to contain laughter, another is caught speechless in mid toast, and the third has a grimace and look of pure disgust. What have you done? You’ve embarrassed yourself, your hosts, and your country. Worse, you have disgraced a fine tequila!

That’s right, tequila. If the last time you tried tequila was that time when you and Joe took on a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold in college and woke up naked under an overpass with matching tattoos and a hangover like no other, then it is time to get back in the game. You have grown up and your tequila drinking should too. Good tequila is as complex, rich, and flavorful as an aged scotch. You do not shoot it. You sip it and savor the beauty of a finely crafted spirit.

Do you need to work with Mexicans? Odds are that at some point you will. A nearly 2,000-mile land border makes Mexico a permanent fixture in U.S. foreign policy calculations. Mexico and the United States share a unique and deeply intertwined relationship. It is America’s third largest trading partner. American foreign direct investment in Mexico totals some $92 billion. An estimated one million Americans live in Mexico, and are joined by over 20 million U.S. tourists every year. There are over 36 million Americans of Mexican origin in the United States, many of whom maintain family ties to Mexico.

Security challenges in Mexico are a binational problem. In 2017, Mexico suffered 29,168 homicides, its most violent year since statistics began being collected. Violence driven by transnational organized crime raised Mexico’s per capita murder rate to 24 per 100,000 residents. The production and transportation of illicit drugs by Mexican transnational criminal organizations have contributed to a record number of American deaths. In 2016, over 15,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses involving heroin. Over 90 percent of heroin seized and tested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) originated in Mexico. While cocaine is not produced in Mexico, cartels smuggle the drug into the United States over the southwestern border. Cocaine was involved in the overdose deaths of over 10,000 Americans in 2016. The DEA believes that Mexico is also a transit country for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. It is not clear how many of the over 19,000 American overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids were caused by fentanyl trafficked through Mexico. Finding bilateral solutions to the linked problems of drug abuse and transnational organized crime remains a high priority in U.S.-Mexican security cooperation.

In contrast with its historically insular foreign policy under the Estrada Doctrine, Mexico is now steadily increasing its role in regional and global security. Mexican armed forces regularly participate in international exercises like Bold Alligator, UNITAS, and Ardent Sentry. In addition, Mexico hosted the Central American Security Conference to help develop multinational solutions to security concerns in Central America. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that Mexico is now an “actor with global responsibility” and would participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

If you want to address transnational organized crime and build up a regional security partner, you have to start with the relationship. In Mexico, relationships start with tequila. Just ask Octavio Paz, who said, “Mexico parties. And that party, crossed by lightning and delirium, is like the brilliant reverse of our silence and apathy, of our reserve and coldness.” Nothing breaks down barriers quite like a couple of caballitos of tequila.

To take a sip of tequila is to take in the history of Mexico. The birth of tequila, like the birth of the Mexican people, emerged from a combination of the native pulque, made from fermented agave, and Spanish distilling. In Mexico, the rich drink whiskey, cognac, and wine, but tequila is the liquor of the pueblo — the people. Since its inception, tequila has been a companion of the Mexican people. Mexican soldiers and General Ignacio Zaragoza raised their glasses after defeating the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. During the Mexican revolution, it was common to see tequila on the tables of the combatants enjoying their post-battle meal. Photos of revolutionaries toting their bottles made the liquor famous. On the border, revolutionary Mexicans drank tequila with their U.S. counterparts and later shared bottles during the hunt for Pancho Villa.

So, how do you rectify this obvious gap in your diplomatic skill set? We propose a three-step process.

Step One. Get your mind right. Meditate, seek counseling, visualize, do whatever you need to do in order to get past your prior experience. Come into your new world of tequila with an open mind. Toss out those old memories (if you can actually remember them), and make room for new ones.

Step Two. Learn the basics. Here is just enough to get by:

Tequila is made from the blue agave plant and is produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The agave is difficult to grow and takes nearly a decade to mature. After it is harvested, the hearts of the plant are put through a painstaking process to bring out the agave nectar that is then distilled into tequila. This is not a simple process, it is an act of love and artistry.

There are six main types of tequila. Tequila blanco is what many consider the purest form of tequila. It is distilled and then bottled. It burns going down and you can more easily identify the smell and taste of the agave. Joven or gold (oro) tequila can be a mix of blanco and reposado or añejo, but you probably have bad memories of gold, because it can also be blanco mixed with other liquids derived from sugar cane or corn or whatever. As a general rule, best to avoid this category and go for 100 percent agave.

Tequila, just like other fine spirits, can be aged to bring out unique flavors. Reposado tequila is aged for at least two months in oak barrels. Añejo tequila is aged in oak barrels for at least one year and extra añejo is aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Cristalino is a new approach where tequila is aged and is then charcoal filtered to bring back some of the agave taste that is lost in the aging process.

Step Three. Try out a flight of good tequila. To start, we recommend a Casa Dragones Blanco. This is incredibly smooth, but still offers that distinct and pure flavor of agave. Next, try out the Maestro Dobel Reposado. With the reposado you will begin to taste the hints of oak from the aging process. Continue the experience with a Don Julio 1942. This añejo tequila will open your eyes to the complex flavors and tastes of a sophisticated aged tequila. At this point, you should hit your palate with the cristalino Don Julio 70 for an amazingly smooth and complicated tequila that still retains its closeness to the organic flavor of the agave. Finally, take a sip of the extra añejo Reserva de la Familia from Jose Cuevo. That’s right, the Cuervo family has been holding out on you.

Armed with a newfound appreciation for tequila, you will be ready to have a sit-down with a borderland powerbroker, break down barriers with Mexican military brass, build trust with the Policía Federal, or whatever else is required to maintain and improve the U.S.-Mexico security relationship.

¡Buena suerte y salud!


Lt. Col. Michael L. Burgoyne, a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer, has served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as the Army Attaché in Mexico City and the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South. LTC Burgoyne deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions. He is the co-author of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona and an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. Please follow him on Twitter: @mburgoyne

Dr. Raúl Benítez Manaut PhD, is a professor and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He holds a B.A. in sociology from UNAM, an M.A. in economics and international politics from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), and a doctorate in Latin American Studies from UNAM. He is the president of the Collective for the Analysis of Security with Democracy (Casede). He was a visiting professor at Columbia University, National Defense University’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, and American University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Kevin White/Flickr

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