Friday, February 27, 2009

Lawmakers in both chambers Thursday announced hearings on the cross-border impact of spiraling drug violence in Mexico, amid concerns that it is spilling over into the United States.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said in a statement that a hearing next month in Washington would be followed by one in April in Arizona.

Arizona state law enforcement officials say that kidnappings have risen in Phoenix, among other places, as the result of the activities of Mexican crime cartels. Facing a crackdown from the Mexican army, cartel leaders have unleashed a spasm of violence south of the border. A recent State Department travel notice compared firefights with the authorities to small unit infantry combat, with internal and external feuds characterized by grisly torture and murder, sometimes videotaped and posted on the Web or circulated by e-mail.

Although that level of violence has not been seen in the United States, the Arizona Department of Public Safety says armed home invasions reminiscent of cartel activity are also on the rise, including at least one by a heavily armed team wearing paramilitary style uniforms.

“The violence, crime and drug trafficking in Mexico due to the raging wars among the drug cartels is increasingly coming across the border and threatening the safety of Arizonans and all Americans,” said committee member Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

The Senate hearings will “assess the rising level of violence in northern Mexico and the implications for increased terrorist activity,” the committee statement said.

“We will be looking at whether bad actors whose goal is the destruction of the American way of life are finding opportunities to work with Mexican drug cartels,” said committee spokesman Leslie Phillips.

Senators also want to look at how the U.S. government is working with Mexico, the statement said, for instance through the so-called Merida initiative, a $1.4 billion multi-year counter-narcotics and law enforcement aid package run by the State Department.

On the House side, a Homeland Security Committee notice said the subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism would hold a hearing next month.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, wrote to committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, Wednesday, urging him to hold hearings as well. Mr. Smith’s staff had no response as yet, and Mr. Conyer’s spokesman said he had not seen the request.

The Senate hearings will also examine the Department of Homeland Security’s role in helping combat the violence and whether its network of fusion centers was effectively coordinating and sharing information.

“Other issues that may arise include … the value of deploying the National Guard … and the potential for mass migration northward,” the statement concluded.

Most experts dismiss the possibility of state collapse or other developments in Mexico that might lead to such mass migration, but the worsening crisis is creating concern about the cartels’ U.S. activities, and not just on the border.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. unveiled a Drug Enforcement Administration operation targeting a single Mexican cartel that had included arrests and seizures of weapons, drugs and cash as far afield as Minnesota and Maine.

He called the groups “a threat to national security” and pledged to work closely with Mexican authorities to help their crackdown.

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