U.S. Efforts Against Mexican Cartels Called Lacking

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

U.S. efforts to help the Mexican government battle powerful organized crime networks are falling short, and a recent sharp spike in violence south of the border poses a growing threat to U.S. citizens, senators and independent experts told officials from three federal agencies yesterday on Capitol Hill.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D), who said his state is the principal American gateway for drugs and human smuggling from Mexico, called the Mexican cartels the principal criminal threat for the 21st century. But he criticized Washington's response as disjointed and called for more intelligence-sharing and better coordination.

"We are not winning the battle," Goddard told members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. Lawmakers joined Goddard in calling for a stronger federal response, including heightened efforts to stanch the illicit stream of thousands of American guns and billions of dollars in cash annually flowing southward across the border.

"Mexican drug cartels . . . pose a direct threat to Americans," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, noting that they now operate in at least 230 U.S. cities, up from about 50 in 2006.

But their joint alarm over the rising drug-related violence in northern Mexico -- where more than 1,000 people have been slain since the beginning of the year -- was not shared by officials at the hearing from the three principal agencies responsible for helping the Mexican government: the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Anthony P. Placido, the DEA's top intelligence official, said his agency believes that Mexican President Felipe Calderón is still "making important strides" against the cartels. The recently increasing violence mostly reflects the criminal networks' "desperate effort to resist," he said.

"The violence we see is actually a signpost of success," Placido said.

A darker picture was presented by Denise Dresser, a Princeton-educated professor of political science in Mexico City, who warned that recent U.S. assistance in fighting drug trafficking has had only mixed success. Cocaine traffickers now spend more than twice the attorney general's budget just for bribes; 450,000 citizens are involved in the drug trade; and more than 2,000 weapons a day are smuggled south to fuel the battle between cartels and against the Mexican government, she said.

"Mexico is becoming a country where lawlessness prevails, where more people died in drug-related violence last year than those killed in Iraq, where the government has been infiltrated by the mafias and cartels it has vowed to combat," Dresser said. "Although many believe that Obama's greatest foreign policy challenges lie in Pakistan or Iran or the Middle East, they may in fact be found in the immediate neighborhood."

Firearms and immigration officials disputed the estimate of 2,000 smuggled weapons a day, saying the number was more likely in the hundreds. But they confirmed that these weapons are becoming more sophisticated and now include .50-caliber rifles with five-inch shells capable of penetrating walls.

"Unfortunately, in the past six months, we have noted a troubling increase in the number of grenades . . . seized from or used by drug traffickers, and we are concerned about the possibility of explosives-related violence spilling into U.S. border towns," the Justice Department said in a written statement to lawmakers.

Federal officials said their agencies had cooperated well and provided timely intelligence and resources to the Mexican government. But the lawmakers said Mexican officials had told them otherwise, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sharply criticized delays in providing helicopters and surveillance equipment under a special aid program, the Merida Initiative, begun by the Bush administration.

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