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.
She is one of the first governors in the country to declare a state of emergency along the Arizona-Mexico border as a result of rising drug trafficking, violence and illegal migration.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war against the cartels in 2006 and has committed more than 40,000 Mexican soldiers to fight the drug gangs on their own turf, although the violence continues to escalate. Last year, the cartels in Mexico killed more than 3,700 people, many of whom were the victims of beheadings or other brutal mutilations.
The bodies of some of those killed were dumped in schoolyards and other public venues. At least 450 Mexican police officers and soldiers have been killed since January 2007.
The Merida Initiative includes training, equipment and intelligence to target drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering. Congress passed legislation in June to provide Mexico with $400 million for military and law enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice and training to strengthen the national justice systems.
No weapons are included, and about $73 million is earmarked for Mexico to use for judicial reform, institution building, human rights and rule-of-law issues. The measure does include eight Bell 412 helicopters, two small Cessna 208 airplanes, surveillance software, and other goods and services produced by U.S. private defense contractors.
Increased border violence is not surprising to the federal, state and local law enforcement authorities assigned along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border, despite the presence of thousands of additional Border Patrol agents in a Homeland Security effort to gain “operational control” of the border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel said the increased violence is the result of efforts by Homeland Security to gain control of the border.
“Our deployment of additional manpower and resources has made the smuggling of drugs and people into the United States much more difficult,” Mr. Friel said. “We believe the violence has increased because the smugglers are frustrated and they have used it as a diversion to get their cargoes into the United States.
“But we will continue to deploy the agents and resources we need to effectively secure this nation’s border,” he said.
Shawn P. Moran, a 10-year U.S. Border Patrol veteran who serves as vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego, said the drug cartels are heavily armed and well-equipped.
“They’ve got weapons, high-tech radios, computers, cell phones, Global Positioning Systems, spotters, and can react faster than we are able to,” Mr. Moran said. “And they have no hesitancy to attack the agents on the line, with anything from assault rifles and improvised Molotov cocktails to rocks, concrete slabs and bottles.
“There are so many agent ‘rockings’ that few are even reported anymore,” he said. “If we wrote them all up, that’s all we would be doing.”
In a 2008 report, ICE said the cartels were becoming increasingly ruthless against rivals and also were targeting federal, state and local police.
During a raid last year on a gang operation in Laredo, Texas, an ICE-led task force of federal agents seized two completed improvised explosive devices, materials for making 33 more devices, 300 primers, 1,280 rounds of ammunition, five grenades, nine pipes with end caps, 26 grenade triggers (14 with fuses and primers attached), 31 grenade spoons, 40 grenade pins, 19 black powder casings, a silencer and cash.
William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told a House subcommittee in June that violence fueled by Mexico’s cartels posed a serious challenge for both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and threatened the well-being and safety of citizens on both sides of the border.
Mr. Hoover said firearms smuggled out of the United States to Mexico were being used to facilitate the drug trade on both sides of the border and that the cartels were paying for the weapons from the profits from their money laundering, distribution and transportation networks.
U.S. authorities have said 90 percent of the firearms either recovered or interdicted in Mexico originated from sources within the United States. Mr. Calderon and Mexican Attorney General Medina Mora have identified the smuggling of U.S.-sourced firearms as the “number one” crime problem affecting Mexican security.
Many of the cartels’ victims are Mexican police officers. They include the commander of the Policia Estatal Investigadora and his driver, who were ambushed and killed in August in Baviacora, Sonora, about 150 miles southwest of Douglas. Some of the police officials were killed with AK-47 assault rifles. Three were decapitated.
Cartel members also use grenade launchers, body armor and Kevlar helmets.