Pubdate: Sat, 07 Mar 2009
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Star-Telegram Operating, Ltd.
Author: Dave Montgomery


AUSTIN -- The state and federal governments have  prepared contingency
plans to deal with "spillover  violence" from across the border as
Mexican troops  clash with ruthless drug cartels terrorizing the
United  States's southern neighbor.

"Anything you can think of that's happened in Mexico,  we have to
think could happen here," said Steve McCraw,  Gov. Rick Perry's
director of homeland security. "We  know what they're capable of."

A crackdown by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has  turned the City
of Juarez, just across the border from  El Paso, into a war zone as
federal troops battle  feuding cartels.

Thousands of soldiers and agents have surged into the  border city in
the government's latest effort to free  Mexican citizens from a daily
spectacle of  assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings ordered by 
rival drug czars. McCraw predicted that the violence in  Mexico "will
get worse before it gets better."

Mexico's active duty armed forces total more than  130,000 and are
being aggressively used to combat the  cartels. But U.S. Sen. John
Cornyn, R-Texas, told  reporters last week that Mexico's two largest
drug  cartels have fielded a combined army of 100,000 foot  soldiers
to battle not just government forces, but also  each other.

The potential threat

The state's contingency plan was developed under the  umbrella of
Operation Border Star, a multi-agency law  enforcement offensive led
by Perry's homeland security  office. The plan, which has not been
released publicly,  envisions differing scenarios of violence, such as
 kidnappings or a takeover by hit squads, with a  corresponding
response by law enforcement, said McCraw.

While declining to elaborate on specifics for security  reasons,
McCall called it a "very aggressive plan to  deal very quickly with
all threats that might be  posed."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also  prepared
contingency measures to respond to  cross-border violence, said DHS
spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.  Like the state plan, the federal response
"contemplates  a number of contingencies that could result from 
violence" in Mexico, said Kudwa.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano,  interviewed last
week on the PBS NewsHour with Jim  Lehrer, said the grisly murders and
kidnappings that  are signatures of the Mexican drug wars haven't made
 their way north.

"But let's be very, very clear," she added. "This is a  very serious
battle. It could spill over into the  United States. If it does, we do
have contingency plans  to deal with it."

Fears of instability

A Defense Department study raising the possibility that  the
narco-violence could undermine the Mexican  government has also
prompted fears of a mass migration  of refugees that would require a
large-scale  humanitarian response.

The U.S. Joint Forces Command, in a speculative  assessment of global
security threats, listed Mexico  and Pakistan as two countries that
"bear consideration  for a rapid and sudden collapse."

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the  government,
its politicians, police and judicial  infrastructure are all under
sustained assault and  pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels,"
said the  report. "How that internal conflict turns out over the  next
several years will have a major impact on the  stability of the
Mexican state.

"Any descent by ... Mexico into chaos would demand an  American
response based on the serious implications for  homeland security
alone," the study said.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was director of the  Office of
National Drug Control Policy under President  Clinton, said in a
report last month that Mexico is  "fighting for survival against
narco-terrorism" and  warned that the country's worsening problems
pose a  threat to U.S. security.

"In the next eight years," he predicted, "the violent  collection of
criminal drug cartels could overwhelm the  state and establish de
facto control over broad regions  of northern Mexico. A failure by the
Mexican political  system to curtail lawlessness and violence could
result  in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S.  border."

Preparations for migration

Perry and others disagree with the speculation that  Mexico is on the
verge of collapse, pointing out that  the country is a robust trading
partner and that the  government is in an aggressive battle with the
cartels.  But state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the 
Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee,  said Texas
nevertheless needs to be prepared.

"Talk of a collapse of the Mexican government is very,  very
premature, and, at this point in time, unlikely,"  he said. "However,
I think that for Texas to be  responsible to its citizens it has to
consider a  contingency plan were conditions to worsen in Mexico. 
There is no question that any type of upheaval in  Mexico would lead
to more people from Mexico coming  across the border illegally in
large numbers."

A state response being prepared by the governor's  office, he said,
would include medical treatment, food,  shelter and other assistance
"for people that are  fleeing their country out of concern for
themselves or  the lives of their families." The response would also 
likely deal with economic disruptions along the border,  he said.

McCraw, interviewed last week, confirmed that the  governor's office
has plans to deal with a migration  surge resulting from "any
calamity" but said there is  no indication that Mexico is vulnerable
to collapse.  Planning for a migration influx, he said, is separate 
from the contingency plan for spillover violence.

"Do we plan for mass migration scenarios?," he said.  "Of course. The
answer is 'absolutely.' ... But the  scenarios could be a natural
disaster, pandemic flu,  serious problems in South America, Central
America. The  State of Texas prepares for all scenarios ... for all 
hazards, all threats."

A look at the problem

Perry's Operation Border Star, which has evolved from  three previous
operations since 2005, is a  multi-jurisdictional offensive designed
to dismantle  smuggling and present a show of force all along Texas' 
1,254-mile-long border with Mexico.

Tied to a central command in Department of Public  Safety headquarters
in Austin, the operation includes  DPS troopers, the Texas Rangers,
the U.S. Border  Patrol, the Coast Guard, local sheriffs and police
and  other state and federal agencies. Over the past four  years, says
Perry's office, serious crime along the  border has dropped by 65 percent.

The Legislature authorized $110 million for Border Star  in 2007, and
Perry is asking for $135 million from the  2009 Legislature. Perry has
also thrown his support  behind legislation sponsored by Carona to
crack down on  transnational gangs operating on the Texas side of the 
border in collaboration with the cartels in Mexico.

Gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate,  Barrio Azteca
and MS-13 have become an increasing  threat in the United States, said
Carona, sometimes  recruiting members from Texas schools. The gangs,
whose  members are often bilingual and, in many cases, are  U.S.
citizens, also have a strong base of operations in  Texas prisons.
McCraw called transnational gangs the  "single-biggest organized crime
threat" on this side of  the border.

The Mexican drug wars claimed more than 5,700 lives in  Mexico in
2008, including 1,600 in Juarez, where the  Sinaloa and Juarez cartels
are battling for supremacy.  About a half-dozen cartels are rooted in
Mexico,  accounting for an estimated $27 billion-a-year business 
through the smuggling of drugs and human cargo. In  turn, says McCraw,
bulk cash, weapons and stolen  vehicles flow back into Mexico from the
United States  to fortify the illicit operations.

Thus far, says McCraw, violence on the Texas side of  the border
hasn't risen to the level that would trigger  full-scale
implementation of the contingency plan. But  a shootout in Reynosa and
protests on international  bridges on Feb. 17 sent Border Star command
posts into  a "hot loop" alert to escalate monitoring and 
intelligence activities before returning to normal 24  hours later,
McCraw said.

Bracing for trouble

Border area law enforcement officers say they are  braced for a
spillover if conditions worsen. "We're in  a state of readiness across
the border," said Don Reay,  executive director of the El Paso-based
Texas Sheriff's  Association.

In El Paso, which has been ranked as one of the  nation's safest
cities for the past decade, Sheriff  Richard Wiles said "there is a
lot more drug smuggling"  through the El Paso corridor because of a
federal  crackdown that closed off a major route through  Florida.

El Paso, he said, has become a home for a number of  stash houses as
drug couriers store their goods in  abandoned warehouses or vacant
houses to wait for the  most opportune time to ship them north into
the U.S.  interior. Local officials have responded with a "stash 
house initiative" urging citizens to report suspicious  activity.

Additionally, 30 shooting victims from cartel-related  incidents in
Mexico came to El Paso last year for  treatment at the county
hospital. "We have to deal with  the security issues to make sure that
the cartel  doesn't come over to finish the job," he said.

Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald said his desolate  border county
of 1,200 people has largely been spared  from the drug trade despite
the county's depiction as  the scene of a soured drug deal in the
movie No Country  for Old Men; actor Tommy Lee Jones played a
fictional  Terrell County sheriff.

McDonald, however, began worrying that the real-life  serenity may one
day evaporate after aerial photos  revealed the construction of
caliche roads leading down  to the river on the other side of the
border. McDonald  fears that drug dealers are preparing a new route
into  the United States in case law enforcement crackdowns  close off
their corridor in El Paso and other areas.

"Being the least populated county on the border, we  have to know that
when it does hit the fan over there,  they have already built roads to
get to us," he said.  "It's kind of like the movie. We can't stop
what's  coming."

This report includes material from The Monitor in  McAllen.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin