Violence on the Mexican border and its reverberations throughout the U.S. are emerging as one of the gravest and least expected problems confronting the Obama administration, a point that was made by President George W. Bush in a late December interview with The Washington Times.
Mr. Obama will need to deal “with these drug cartels in our own neighborhood,” Mr. Bush said. “And the front line of the fight will be Mexico. The drug lords will continue to search for a soft underbelly. And one of the things that future presidents are going to have to make sure of is that they don’t find a safe haven in parts of Central America.”
In her testimony Wednesday, Ms. Napolitano sounded a similar note, saying: “I’ve actually found the situation in Mexico one of the top priority items on my desk. It was on my desk when I was governor of Arizona, but as the secretary of homeland security, I see it in a much broader way.”
Thousands of Mexican troops have been sent to the border by President Felipe Calderon to patrol drug routes and bust drug runners.
But the drug cartels have retaliated at levels of violence never before seen, and Ms. Napolitano warned that failure could turn Mexico’s border areas into a war zone that the central government cannot effectively control, as happened in Colombia.
“They’ve been targeting in some of those homicides public officials [and] law enforcement officers as a process of intimidation,” Ms. Napolitano said.
The homeland security chief has already met with Mexico’s attorney general and the U.S. ambassador there, and said the U.S. is “working to support President Calderon in his efforts.”
“That is primarily the product of the president of Mexico and his government going after these large drug cartels, so that we never run the risk, never run the risk of Mexico descending into, say, where Colombia was 15 years ago,” Ms. Napolitano said.
The cocaine trade turned Colombia into a battle zone, with the Medellin and Cali cartels able to attack the highest levels of Colombian politics with kidnappings and assassinations.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on anti-drug efforts, and teamed up with the Colombian government to knock down cocaine production, but to this day the national government in Bogota does not effectively control large parts of the country, where the drug-linked Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the de facto government.
U.S. officials will focus in particular on the traffic of guns and cash from the U.S. to Mexico to support “these very, very violent cartels,” Ms. Napolitano said.
“I believe our country has a vital relationship with Mexico, and I believe that Mexico right now has issues of violence that are of a different degree and level than we’ve ever seen before,” she said.
“But in my view, from a homeland security standpoint, this is going to be an issue, working with Mexico, that is going to be of real priority interest over these coming months,” Ms. Napolitano said.
The Obama administration says that the drug-gang violence on the U.S. side of the border does not match what is going on in Mexico’s border states, but says there is a contingency plan in place that will not include militarizing the U.S. side of the boundary.
• Sara A. Carter, Ben Conery and Jerry Seper contributed to this report.
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