- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

Add another pressing challenge to President-elect Barack Obama’s growing to-do list - tamping down a dramatic rise in violence and corruption that has overwhelmed the U.S.-Mexico border and spread an escalating turf fight between warring drug cartels into the United States.

Near-daily shootouts and ambushes along the southwestern border pose a serious threat, according to separate government reports, which predict a rise in “deadly force” against law enforcement officers, first responders and U.S. border residents.

Even President Bush, during a Dec. 21 interview with The Washington Times, warned that Mr. Obama faced a looming war with drug cartels where “the front line of the fight will be Mexico.” He said the new president will need to deal “with these drug cartels in our own neighborhoods.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the agency has begun to make progress against “the criminals and thugs” operating along the U.S.-Mexico border, but “we are beginning to see more violence in some border communities and against our Border Patrol agents as these traffickers … seek to protect their turf.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the investigative arm of Homeland Security, said in a recent report that border gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless, targeting rivals, along with federal, state and local police. ICE said border violence has risen dramatically over the past three years as part of “an unprecedented surge.”

The Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Investigative Support Center also predicted further spillage of drug-gang violence deep into the United States.

The organizations, which gather intelligence and coordinate counternarcotics efforts among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, also said the cartels are expected to hire members of deadly street gangs in the U.S. to carry out further acts of violence, and that many cartel members and corrupt police officials in Mexico - overwhelmed by violence in many border towns - have begun relocating their relatives in the United States.

In April, the Justice Department reported that Mexican drug cartels represent the “largest threat to both citizens and law enforcement agencies in this country and now have gang members in nearly 200 U.S. cities.” The 200 cities include Washington; Baltimore, Frederick and Greenbelt in Maryland; and Arlington and Galax in Virginia.

Mr. Obama has said his administration will target transnational gangs, violence, drugs and organized crime and step up U.S. security efforts to stem the flow of gang-related crime and narcotrafficking, as well as formulate regional strategic cooperation on personal security issues.

He has supported the continuation and expansion of the Merida Initiative to roll back rampant violence, corruption, and drug and arms trafficking throughout the region and has committed to combating the cartels.

Mr. Obama also said he would establish relations with other Latin American countries to decrease both the drug supply and demand, and expand the initiative to Central America, where he said much of the trafficking and gang activity begins.

“It’s time to work together to find the best practices that work across the hemisphere, and to tailor approaches to fit each country,” he said, adding that he would direct his attorney general and secretary of homeland security to “sit down with all their counterparts in the Americas during my first year in office.”

“We need tougher border security, and a renewed focus on busting up gangs and traffickers crossing our border,” he said. “As president, I’ll make it clear that we’re coming after the guns, we’re coming after the money laundering, and we’re coming after the vehicles that enable this crime.”

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Mr. Obama’s nominee as homeland security secretary, has been a staunch advocate of technology as a law enforcement tool, particularly along the southwestern border. She has called for more motion sensors and aerial surveillance to spot those who enter the country illegally.

Miss Napolitano also has said she is concerned about increased drug smuggling along the border and the violence associated with it, and has met privately with Border Patrol and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials to discuss ways to combat it.

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