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.
Still, the long-term national security threat both in the United States and in Mexico would be real if Mexican authorities are forced to resume a de facto coexistence with narco-traffickers. Intelligence analysts argue that freedom for transnational crime organizations to operate in large parts of the country could undo Mexico's progress toward democratization and open markets, and erode U.S. influence.
To an extent, Calderón's campaign against traffickers has struggled because, as Mexico has become more democratic, the police and judicial apparatus of the old authoritarian system has crumbled -- but has yet to be replaced by a professional law-enforcement system.
"This is what people miss when they analyze Mexico. Drug trafficking feeds on a country that has a very precarious, if not nonexistent, rule of law," said Denise Dresser, a Mexican political scientist.
The U.S. anti-smuggling effort may make only a dent in the southbound flow of cash and weapons, but could ease the way for further U.S.-Mexican cooperation and help Calderón mobilize public support, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a Brookings Institution fellow.
A wave of violence in Mexico last year prompted urgent calls by Calderón for U.S. government action, aimed in part to bolster his weakened political standing ahead of crucial legislative elections in July, analysts say. At the same time, dire reports in the U.S. news media whipped up concern among key lawmakers here.
Bloodletting has taken on new degrees of savagery since Calderón began his assault against the cartels two years ago. The cartels beheaded about 200 people last year, staged grenade attacks in public places and conducted hours-long firefights in border cities.
Calderón's administration has pressed officials in Washington to do more to target U.S. demand for drugs and step up the delivery of promised assistance.
Last year the Bush administration pushed through Congress the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion counter-trafficking aid package for Mexico and Central America that includes training, military hardware, scanning technology and security database improvements. But Congress has approved only $300 million of the $450 million sought for Mexico in 2009, and delivery of some key equipment, helicopters and surveillance aircraft is not expected until 2011 at the earliest, officials say.
Meanwhile, Congress has held eight hearings on the issue under pressure from those on the right who seek to limit immigration and engagement with Mexico and those on the left who want to decriminalize drugs and tighten gun-control laws. The subject presents a test and an opportunity for Obama officials.
"A Democratic administration more than a Republican administration is going to be sensitive to any notion that it is not serious about a growing national security issue," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
On the other hand, he added, "I don't think the administration wants to play into the hands of those who take a rather xenophobic stance with regard to immigration."
Staff writers Carrie Johnson, R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.