By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009
The Obama administration released yesterday a counternarcotics strategy for the U.S.-Mexico border that calls for deploying new technology, stepping up intelligence gathering and increasing interdiction of ships, aircraft and vehicles that are smuggling drugs, gun and cash.
Among other things, the 65-page White House Office of National Drug Control Policy document says federal agencies should modernize airborne sensors and extend surveillance of boats "from the coast to beyond the horizon." It also calls for improving tracking devices that can be hidden in illegal shipments and, when necessary, allowing more banned items to move through smuggling networks to expose their leaders.
The report comes as President Obama has pledged to support and increase cooperation with Mexico President Felipe J. Calderón's crackdown on drug cartels by expanding the focus of U.S. efforts to contraband flowing in both directions between the two countries. The report emphasizes plugging gaps in U.S. intelligence about what goes undetected in the vast movement of goods between the two sides, and also stepping up investigative resources.
"The best way to partner with President Calderón and the Mexican authorities is for us to gain a deeper understanding of these trafficking operations," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said, releasing the strategy in Albuquerque with U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The strategy revives an interagency intelligence-coordinating group and urged federal, state and local cooperation to conduct complex investigations. It also calls for improved nonlethal technology to stop vehicles and to detect tunnels, and for barriers at border checkpoints so spotters cannot see when or how agents are inspecting vehicles.
The administration announced this year it was moving to the border 450 additional federal agents and screening technology such as license-plate readers and X-ray machines.
The administration also asked for $350 million as part of a supplemental war-funding bill to support border efforts to speed up a three-year, $1.4 billion countertrafficking aid program for Mexico. The House and Senate have approved $820 million and $666 million, respectively, in bills that must be reconciled.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the strategy but added: "I am disappointed that it does not call on Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to resolve their long-standing turf battles over drug investigations."
DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement has long sought permission for more of its agents to investigate drug cases from the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Administration, which has resisted.
Spokesmen for the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes alternatives to the "war on drugs," said that although Obama officials acknowledge the importance of reducing Americans' demand for drugs, the strategy sets no clear steps to increase access to substance-abuse treatment.
"It is disappointing that our federal officials today remained focused on targeting the supply side of the Mexican drug war," said Julie Roberts, acting director of the group in New Mexico. "We also need to develop a public health plan for safely reducing drug demand in this country."