WASHINGTON (AP) - Mexican drug cartels are spreading south into Central America as they are squeezed by stepped-up law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. drug enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Thomas Harrigan, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief of operations, said the crackdown by Mexico and the U.S. is pushing some cartels south.
President Barack Obama travels to Mexico on Thursday. To help fight the cartels, Obama has promised to dispatch nearly 500 more federal agents to the U.S.-Mexico border, along with X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs.
“We’re looking at what happens south of Mexico as well, because that’s just as important as what’s happening on our border,” said Harrigan. “With more and more success the Mexican government has, literally they’re pushing these cartels further south and potentially it could be a problem in Central America.”
Senior DEA officials spoke with reporters Wednesday about their efforts to fight the powerful drug organizations.
Harrigan said it’s possible the extra law enforcement efforts could “push the cartels into Central America.”
And Anthony Placido, the DEA’s chief of intelligence, says there are signs it’s already happening. There have been significant seizures of cartel weaponry in Guatemala, and shootouts among Mexican cartels with operations in Central American countries. The cartels “definitely have” moved south, said Placido.
“We’ve seen running gun battles in places like Guatemala and Honduras between rival Mexican cartels,” he said.
Last month before Congress, U.S. State Department official David Johnson said Central American officials “have identified gangs, drug trafficking, and trafficking of arms as the most pressing security concerns in that region.”
The acting head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, told reporters Wednesday that more efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border alone will not be enough to dismantle the cartels.
“A seizure on the border is not going to break the backs of the cartels. What breaks the backs of the cartels are the partnerships with the U.S. and Mexican counterparts in country, in Mexico,” she said.
Also Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to announce she has chosen a former federal prosecutor to the new post of “border czar” to oversee efforts to end cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and slow the tide of people crossing illegally into the United States.
Napolitano is expected to name Alan Bersin to the post at an announcement in El Paso, Texas.
Associated Press Writer Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.