Stopping crime rings should be focus of Obama's border strategy
After almost a year of debate between officials of the Homeland Security and Defense departments, President Obama announced Tuesday that he would deploy 1,200 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico, coupled with a request to Congress for $500 million to enhance border security measures. The deployment's main flaw is immediately clear: It does not fit into a broader strategy to counter the instability generated by drug violence. This is a tactical response to a strategic problem. Until the Obama administration develops a strategy for dealing with the growing turmoil along the border, deploying troops risks placing the United States on a slippery slope of escalating militarization with little positive effect.
Obama's decision was largely a political gesture to win Republican support for immigration reform. Although some have welcomed the move, critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complain that 1,200 troops will not make a difference. These skeptics are right. A couple of thousand more boots on the ground will barely affect the situation on the border.
Moreover, Mexicans will rightly be wary. Obama risks being seen as militarizing the border instead of taking measures the international community has long called for, such as placing further emphasis on drug reduction, renewing the expired ban on assault weapons or ratifying the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms. (In fact, reluctance to "militarize" the border was a main reason Pentagon officials disagreed with Homeland Security counterparts over the functions of troops that might be deployed.)
The big question is: Would many more troops make a difference? The Bush administration sent 6,000 National Guard members to the border in 2006 under Operation Jump Start. Their two-year mission was to offer support -- mainly logistical -- to law enforcement; presumably, this will also be the mission of those Obama is deploying. Then, as now, the impetus was a political need related to the debate on immigration reform. Overall smuggling of drugs and people did not diminish, and immigration law has yet to be reformed.
Even in the best-case scenario, the National Guard can act only as a stopgap, as at least one Bush administration official, now safely out of office, has admitted. The United States does not need more border enforcement but smarter border enforcement. The real threat to U.S. security along America's southern edge comes from organized crime rings, not masses of immigrants, even illegal ones. Illegal immigration rates have declined for several years, partly because of the recession but also because border enforcement has been improving. (For example, there are more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents, an 80 percent increase since 2004 and an all-time high in that agency's history. Spending on surveillance technologies has also facilitated better monitoring of the border.)
Yet even as border patrolling has improved, the power of criminal organizations has grown. Crime rates in border cities are not skyrocketing as some claim, but high-profile incidents, such as striking murders and clashes with law enforcement, are on the rise, along with attempts to corrupt U.S. officials. The most dangerous groups are the most sophisticated ones, and they know how to avoid enforcement hot spots. Physical acts, such as installing fences or increasing patrols, will not do much to affect drug violence, drug smuggling, drug-related corruption of public officials or the myriad other ills that drug trafficking visits on a population.
What is needed along the border is a coordinated strategy among federal agencies and foreign governments, not incremental acts and feel-good deployments. Such a broad strategy would focus on reducing criminal groups' ability to violently contest state authority, both by diminishing the sources of their proceeds (drugs) and their social base (through a mix of regional law enforcement and social programs). It would expand beyond borders and would include most countries in the region to counter "balloon effects," the relocation of illicit activity from one area to another. Its ultimate goal would be to ensure that illicit trades do not upset stability in areas of interest to U.S. security, be they regions in Mexico or in Arizona.
In the meantime, questions about the troop deployment remain to be answered: What states will they come from? How will they be distributed? How will the government ensure that the National Guard counters criminals but does not deal directly with immigrants, as the White House has promised?
Without a broader strategy, sending troops to the border smells of mission creep. Given the situation today, if the government continues deploying units, there is no saying what might bring them back.
Jennifer Bernal-Garcia is researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.