By Spencer S. Hsu and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The Obama administration announced plans yesterday to move more than 450 law enforcement agents and equipment to the southern U.S. border to combat Mexican drug cartel violence, but its "comprehensive response" was also notable for what it omitted.
President Obama asked for no new troops, legislation or funding from Congress for now, beyond the three-year $1.4 billion Merida Initiative that lawmakers gave Mexico and Central America for counter-trafficking programs last year and a small amount of stimulus money for border security.
Nevertheless, Obama last night described the measures as "very significant," and he said in a prime-time news conference that they were intended "to make sure that the border communities in the United States are protected and you're not seeing a spillover of violence, and that we are helping the Mexican government deal with a very challenging situation."
He added: "If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done, then we will do more."
Analysts said the plan appeared calibrated to provoke the least opposition at home and the greatest diplomatic and political payoff from audiences in Mexico and U.S. border areas.
"The United States is saying, 'This is a shared responsibility, so let's come up with mutual solutions rather than playing the blame game,' " said Shannon K. O'Neil, a professor at Columbia University and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Instead of proposing a costly new package, federal officials said they will redirect resources to cut off the financial lifelines supporting the cartels, in particular the estimated $18 billion to $39 billion in cash, wire transfers and other smuggled payments moving each year from the United States to Mexico.
The other U.S. focus is "to get its own house in order," O'Neil said, increasing enforcement against the 90 percent of guns from the United States that are used in crimes in Mexico and acknowledging a $65 billion domestic market for illegal drugs that drives demand.
Analysts said the security initiative will bolster Mexican President Felipe Calderón by showing that the United States is sharing some of the sacrifices of its two-year-old campaign to break the power of narco-trafficking rings, which have led to the deaths of more than 7,200 people in Mexico since the beginning of 2008.
But some experts said the tools deployed represent a tiny first step toward what is needed.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the nation's drug czar during the Clinton administration, said that adding "a handful of platoon-sized units" will not check the problem and that the amount committed is minuscule compared with the $2.5 billion the U.S. military spends in Afghanistan each month and the $12 billion going to Iraq.
"It's commendable they're paying attention," McCaffrey said. But, he added, "where's our sense of priorities?"
The Justice Department reported in December that Mexican cartels are the "biggest organized crime threat in the United States," present in 230 cities. There are 6,600 licensed gun dealers along the southern U.S. border alone, vastly outnumbering a relative handful of federal investigators assigned to Mexican smuggling. U.S. officials seized less than $1 billion in contraband cash last year, a fraction of cartel assets.
The Bush administration pushed through the Merida Initiative, a package of training, military hardware, scanning technology and security database improvements. Congress has approved $700 million of the $900 million pledged so far, and delivery of helicopters and surveillance aircraft has been delayed two years.
Yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that 100 new customs inspection personnel, mobile X-ray scanners, license-plate readers and drug-sniffing dog teams will be sent to checkpoints to counter drug and weapons smuggling from the United States into Mexico. Separately, the Homeland Security and Justice departments are sending $89 million in previously funded local law enforcement grants to border communities and high-traffic drug smuggling corridors.
Napolitano's department will deploy 260 more people to double the number of joint U.S.-Mexico task forces, as well as increase the number of intelligence, law enforcement liaison and attaché personnel assigned to border areas and Mexico City. U.S. efforts to scan southbound rail cars and to fingerprint criminal illegal immigrants caught in targeted border communities will be expanded.
Napolitano is also reviewing a request by the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona for National Guard troops, and she plans to meet tomorrow with Texas Gov. Rick Perry to find out how many he thinks are needed and where.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.