Pubdate: Sun, 22 Mar 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Spencer S. Hsu, and Mary Beth Sheridan


Obama Plans to Send Agents, Equipment To Aid Mexican Fight

President Obama is finalizing plans to move federal agents, equipment 
and other resources to the border with Mexico to support Mexican 
President Felipe Calderon'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 
Calderon'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, Calderon'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 Calderon 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 
Calderon 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 Calderon 
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.

Calderon'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.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart