WASHINGTON – 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.
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 collapse of Mexico and Pakistan into failed states “bear consideration” as potential worst-case threats over 25 years, several senior U.S. intelligence officials, to a person, 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.
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.