Obama Plans Anti-Drug Effort on Border to Aid Mexico

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By Spencer S. Hsu and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 22, 2009

President Obama is finalizing plans to move federal agents, equipment and other resources to the border with Mexico to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón's campaign against violent drug cartels, according to U.S. security officials.

In Obama's first major domestic security initiative, administration officials are expected to announce as early as this week a crackdown on the supply of weapons and cash moving from the United States into Mexico that helps sustain that country's narco-traffickers, officials said.

The announcement sets the stage for Mexico City visits by three Cabinet members, beginning Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and followed next week by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano, designated by Obama to convene a multi-agency security plan for the border, said the government is preparing plans to send more agents and intensify its investigation and prosecution of cartel-related activity in the United States. In addition, she said, the government may expand efforts to trace the sources of guns that move from the United States into Mexico.

To combat the southbound flow of guns, ammunition and grenades at border checkpoints, the government may deploy new equipment, such as scales to weigh vehicles and automated license-plate readers linked to databases, as well as other surveillance technology, she said.

Government officials are discussing how to increase intelligence sharing and military cooperation with Mexico, following a visit there this month by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the administration could employ tools used to track terrorist financing to follow the flow of funds within the estimated $65 billion North American drug trade. Funds -- estimated at $18 billion to $39 billion a year -- move through wire transfers as well as cash smuggled into Mexico in planes and vehicles and by human "mules."

Obama, who plans to visit Mexico in mid-April and has said he will have a "comprehensive policy" on border security in place within months, has elevated to the top of the agenda a subject that did not receive significant attention in the presidential campaign. His focus on Mexico follows a sharp increase in drug-related killings in Mexican cities along the border, prompting fears in the United States of destabilization in the populous neighbor. Since the beginning of 2008, more than 7,200 people have died in drug-related violence, according to Mexican authorities.

Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Obama's security and foreign policy aides have spent the past two months reordering their priorities as "snowballing" concern in Congress pushed Mexico "to the front burner" alongside the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama's efforts mark a shift from the homeland security priorities of the Bush administration, targeted mainly at the threat of Islamist terrorists overseas and illegal immigration at home. While the new president has vowed to maintain counter-terrorism efforts, the addition of fighting Mexican drug trafficking as well human smuggling networks represents a new emphasis.

While a Pentagon study in November concluded that the sudden collapses of Mexico and Pakistan into failed states "bear consideration" as potential worst-case threats over 25 years, several senior U.S. intelligence officials disputed that analysis and said they do not believe the cartels will deliberately target U.S. government personnel, interests or civilians in the United States in the near-term.

"The ongoing violence is a concern, but not a national security threat to the United States," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, who said it has largely resulted from Calderón's "determined and courageous" effort to dismantle the cartels.

Spillover violence in the United States is primarily cartel-on-cartel crime, such as kidnappings, Napolitano said. Phoenix, for example, reported 700 kidnappings in the past two years, mostly as human smugglers extorted fees from their clients.


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