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Mexican musicians play to mend frayed cross-border ties

About five years ago the U.S. and Mexican governments were barely talking to each other, officials said, yet the significant improvement in their crucial cross border relationship was expressed not just in speeches but also the music that filled a Tucson auditorium Friday morning.

“We’ve had such a long partnership with Mexico,” said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske.  “So many of our personnel on the border, there is one degree of separation, their friends and relatives and others are on either side of the border.”

Mexican Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Damián Canales said that examples set by strong leadership have made a difference, pointing out that President Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto even publicly address each other by their first names.

"The relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is at its best in history," said Canales. "And that trickles down as a pyramid to the lower offices that the relationship is strong and that they continue to work together."

Hosting each other's liaisons and coordinating emergency responses for rescues and crime prevention on the border are successful examples of ground level cooperation, Kerlikowske and Canales agreed.

But both officials said they want to make sure their work, and their cooperation, is reaching the the people they serve as well.

“We haven’t, perhaps, been out in the communities as much as we should," Kerlikowske said.

Now, Kerlikowske says, the CBP - and Mexican Federal Police are working on making a much better effort.

So are events like Friday's concert by the Mexican Federal Police Woodwind Symphony and Mariachi where officers from the Mexican Federal Police, Customs and Border Protection, other Department of Homeland Security agents and additional other U.S. agencies including the National Parks Service gathered with friends and family for classical music, pop medleys and traditional mariachi songs that brought the audience to their feet.

"I don't sing or play but when I see the people enjoy I feel like I want to sing," Canales said.

A crisply uniformed and smiling military symphony of woodwinds and brass of the band sat in rows across the stage looking up at their music and audience through the bright lighting. The massive wall behind them glowed red, white and green, suggestive of their country’s flag.

The conductor had announced that he had a surprise for us, and before anyone knew it Commissioner Kerlikowske took the podium and began conducting the symphony for several opening bars of their next song.

The second surprise came later, when the Mexican Federal Police Mariachi strolled out unexpectedly from the back halls of the auditorium instead of from the stage, marching in two lines from both sides down the walkways through  the audience and filling the room with guitars, trumpets and a passionate chorus of singers.

Outside the theater in a small enclave of concrete buildings the sun shone conspicuously behind the cloudy ceiling that reflected brightly above yet suggested distant rain on this warm day in Tucson.

Representatives and recruitment staff from each organization finished packing up their tents and equipment, rolling chunks of it away to curbs and waiting trucks.

As many of Mexican Federal Police band members carried instruments towards waiting buses and personnel vans, they wore the small bright blue backpacks passed out earlier by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Friday's concert is a part of a series of events focused on building effective and mutually beneficial cross border partnerships, including three this week in Arizona.

On Wednesday Kerlikowske met with security officials and airline employees working to combat human trafficking in Phoenix.

"The primary goal of both law enforcement agencies is the protection of the people," Kerlikowske said. "And I think you’ll hear that Deputy Commissioner Canales say that."

Building partnerships with each other and with the communities they serve is crucial for addressing - and preventing - crime, Kerlikowske and Caneles said.

"In some of the very crime driven communities in Mexico, they've been able to use this approach with the orchestra to show that it is not just clashing with organized crime, that there's a peaceful way to do things,"  Caneles said. "Through the orchestra they're able to communicate with the communities so the community trusts the federal police and will share information because there's of course crimes being committed and sometimes they don't get report it so they want to extend a hand out to have the communication."

On Thursday Kerlikowske and Mexico Customs Administrator General Ricardo Trevino discussed cargo imports in Nogales, including a plan for joint inspections they say will reduce wait times and lower the cost of business while preserving security.

"The cooperation is critical in our relationship and the ability to communicate with each other is critical to our successes in both countries," Canales said. "Especially now as we live in a world where not one country can stand alone no matter the size of the country, small or large, we have to cooperate with our neighbors."

This cooperation will serve all parties well, Kerlikowske said.

"It’s not a difficult balance and it’s not an either, or," Kerlikowske said. "It’s critical to the economies and jobs in both countries and we have recognize to make sure the border is as secure as it possibly can be, but that we are moving people and cargo both ways."

The politicians and the musicians were also in Texas earlier this summer and will be in San Diego later this month with everything both bands need to perform.

"You would think that it's too much work to do this but the  positive results have been very very beneficial for them," Canales said. "The federal police have many challenges and the mere fact is that officers put their lives on the line to protect the communities and that this is great way to introduce the officers and show their gratitude."

Indeed it took multiple tour buses to bring all the personnel, instruments and luggage across the Tucson International Airport tarmac for loading into the navy blue plane with the Mexican Federal Police logo that would carry everyone to the next location.

But however sweaty and exhausted, whether they were waving farewell or boarding the plane, at the end of the day nearly every musician, official and audience members had a smile on their face.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Garret Schwartz

The Mexican Federal Police Woodwind Symphony prepares for a performance of law enforcement officers, friends and family at Tucson's Pima Community College Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre on Friday.