The drug war is on.
On the same day that the secretary of homeland security told Congress that drug-related violence along the Mexican border had grown beyond the ability of the department to handle, the DEA announced an operation against a major Mexican drug cartel that netted more than 750 suspects - almost all of them in the U.S.
"I believe this is going to require more than the Department of Homeland Security," Janet Napolitano said Wednesday during her first Capitol Hill appearance since her confirmation last month as homeland security secretary.
"So we are reaching out to the national security adviser, to the attorney general and others about how we within the United States make sure we are doing all we can in a coordinated way to support the president of Mexico," said Ms. Napolitano, explaining that containing border-related drug violence will require more than the 22 agencies and 200,000 employees in her department.
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Border violence, which claimed more than 1,000 lives in January and about 6,000 in 2008, is already on the radar of Pentagon and CIA officials, who have told The Washington Times of their involvement in the current crisis in Mexico and say they are watching developments closely.
U.S. intelligence officials told The Times that the effects of the global economic crisis on Mexico have helped narcotics traffickers recruit more people and corrupt more Mexican officials.
At his first meeting with reporters Wednesday, new CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said that Mexico was a "priority" for the agency.
"Mexico is an area of concern because of the drug wars going on there," Mr. Panetta said. "The president [of Mexico] has courageously taken on that issue, but nevertheless, it's an area that we are paying attention to, a lot of attention to."
Meanwhile Wednesday, Justice Department officials announced the arrest of 755 people associated with Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel as part of a two-year probe dubbed "Operation Xcellerator." The operation also netted $59 million, 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, 16,000 pounds of marijuana and about 1.3 million Ecstasy pills.
But as a measure of how thoroughly Mexico's deadly drug gangs have entrenched themselves in the U.S., Justice Department officials said only 20 of the arrests took place in Mexico, with the rest taking place north of the border.
And in a specific example of the spread of Mexican drug-gang violence across the U.S., a confidential Department of Homeland Security advisory said an assassination attempt on a South Carolina deputy sheriff was the work of three illegal immigrants as part of a Mexican-American gang with ties to the drug trade.
Lexington County, S.C., Deputy Sheriff Ted Xanthakis and his K-9, Arcos, both survived the ambush by three men armed with a 12-gauge shotgun during a Feb. 8 incident in West Columbia, S.C.
Two of the men were identified in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report as members of the Surenos gang, or SUR-13, a collection of hundreds of Mexican-American street gangs with origins in the oldest barrios of Southern California and which federal law enforcement agencies accuse of involvement in smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants.
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.