President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed yesterday to try to reduce violence on the U.S.-Mexico border and pledged to have their countries’ domestic security departments work together on the issue.
In a telephone conversation, Mr. Bush designated Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to be the top U.S. contact on border violence, and Mr. Fox tapped Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal Carranza as his point man.
“The two leaders talked about the importance of working together to improve our border security and stop the violence,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Concern over border violence is growing as violent encounters in Mexico increase, spreading rapidly throughout northern Mexico from the lawless confines of Nuevo Laredo, which lies across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas.
Last week, two police chiefs were killed within hours of each other in what U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement authorities have described as an escalating war among drug cartels for control of key smuggling routes into the United States.
Hector Ayala, chief in San Pedro Garza Garcia, outside Monterrey, was killed Feb. 13 when a car passed his vehicle and opened fire. Four hours earlier, Sabinas Hidalgo Police Chief Javier Garcia was abducted by armed men, bound and shot in the back of the head.
The violence has not been confined to Mexico. Since Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, there have been more than 200 assaults on U.S. agents in the Tucson sector alone, and the Border Patrol has warned agents in Arizona of incursions by men dressed in Mexican military uniforms.
The warning was issued last month after increased sightings of what authorities described as heavily armed Mexican military units on the U.S. side of the border.
U.S. officials at first downplayed the incursions. Mr. Chertoff called the reports “overblown” and “scare tactics.” Border Patrol chief David V. Aguilar told the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month that incursions are “decreasing in frequency,” though he said the incidents are “not taken lightly.”
But members of Congress say the issue is serious, and both the House and the Senate are investigating the reports.
Mexico denies its military officials cross into the United States and blames criminal organizations, arguing the smugglers wear military-style uniforms and drive military-style vehicles.
Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said yesterday that by designating top-level contacts the two countries are trying to present a united front in the fight against organized crime.
“At the highest level, they are talking about strengthening the idea and the importance of fighting together against a phenomenon that goes both ways,” he said.
He said the criminal organizations operate on both sides of the border, smuggling firearms south into Mexico and drugs north into the United States.
“This is a problem that knows no boundaries,” he said.