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U.S. ramps up help in Mexico drug war

Wed., March 25, 2009

Adding agents aims to stop southbound gun supplies, profits

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration promised Tuesday to help Mexico fight its drug war by cutting off the cartels’ supply of guns and profits, while resisting the Texas governor’s call for a troop surge at the border to ward off spillover violence.

The steps announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano – 450 federal agents shifted to border duty, supplied with dogs trained to detect both drugs and cash, and scanners to check vehicles and railcars heading into Mexico – amount to a subtle but important shift:

The blockade of contraband will now be a two-way effort. The fence begun under the Bush administration will be completed, to deter smugglers of drugs and workers. But the new emphasis will be on disrupting the southbound flow of profits and weapons that fuel the cartels.

The plan is built on efforts under way for years rather than a show of force or a dramatic influx of resources. And it relies almost entirely on existing funds, even as it intensifies the focus on high-tech surveillance, inspections of trucks and railcars, and cooperation among federal, local and Mexican authorities.

“There’s already a very, very heavy federal presence. We add to it, we target, we dedicate,” Napolitano said at the White House as she laid out the plan ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Mexico today.

Tuesday’s announcement was meant to mollify concerns in Mexico that it has borne the brunt of the bloody fight, even though the drug trade is fueled by the U.S. appetite for narcotics.

But it didn’t satisfy Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, who reiterated his request Tuesday for “an immediate deployment of 1,000 additional National Guard troops to support civilian law enforcement and Border Patrol agents.”

He’ll meet with Napolitano on Thursday in Texas, and she’ll ask him to make his case that violence in Mexico – especially in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso – warrants more drastic measures. More than 7,000 Mexicans have died in the last 15 months.

“Why 1,000?” she said. “Where did that number come from? Where in Texas? Texas has a huge border with Mexico. And what does he anticipate the Guard doing?”

For now, the U.S. plans more incremental steps: extra Treasury Department efforts to track money laundering; 100 extra customs inspectors to screen vehicles heading into Mexico – a mission never undertaken before; 16 extra Drug Enforcement Administration agents at the border.

Over the next 45 days, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will shift 100 workers to the border to intercept guns heading south, and add four employees in Mexico City to help trace guns captured from drug gangs.

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