Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that the federal government has begun planning what it would do if the Mexican government fails in its fight with drug cartels and the United States has to deal with a broken government and a potential stream of refugees across the border.
The move was announced as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared to arrive Wednesday in Mexico, and the Mexican government placed $2 million in bounties on the heads of two dozen drug gang chiefs.
The fight between the Mexican government and rival cartels has intensified in recent months. Ms. Napolitano said she thinks the Mexican government will prevail, but the Department of Homeland Security has to plan for worst-case scenarios.
“One of the things we do at the department is plan for even the most remote contingencies. We have those plans,” Ms. Napolitano said, though she said that even to acknowledge the U.S. plans could be overstating the threat.
Spectacularly brutal drug-related kidnappings and killings in Mexico have skyrocketed, with 8,000 killings over the past two years blamed on drug violence. With the threats of violence spilling into the United States, President Obama promised to step up his engagement and coordinate efforts out of the White House.
Ms. Napolitano and other top officials announced a plan to reallocate manpower to the border and continue the framework established by the Bush administration to combat drugs being smuggled into the U.S. and guns and money being smuggled south to Mexico.
Ms. Napolitano said the new plan is “a very robust movement of personnel” in the first wave in a series of announcements on combating the rising violence. The U.S. also has committed to stemming the flow of guns and money headed south, which Mexico blames for arming the cartels and contributing to the violence.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has made quashing drug cartels the top priority of his six-year term in office, but the cartels have fought back violently, and have even extended their reach into U.S. communities. Phoenix has become the country’s kidnapping capital, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told a Senate hearing last week.
“The threat posed to American communities from this trafficking cannot be overestimated,” Mr. Goddard said.
Critics welcomed Mr. Obama’s boost in resources on the border but said that increasing the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on the border shouldn’t cut immigration enforcement elsewhere.
“It tells me that work-site enforcement is going to suffer,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.
He said that having the agents watching for contraband headed to Mexico means they aren’t working on stopping what’s coming into the U.S.
He said if it turns out the effort is taking away from immigration enforcement inside the U.S., he will offer amendments to bills to try to redirect money to work-site enforcement. He said if the country had followed through on building a fence or wall to secure its borders, it would be much easier to manage a future flow of refugees.
Border state governors gave mixed reviews.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, called the initiative “a great first step” to prevent a spillover of violence.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, said that while he appreciates the additional resources, the numbers promised by Ms. Napolitano are inadequate.
“What we really need are more border patrol agents and officers at the bridges to conduct increased northbound and southbound inspections, as well as additional funding for local law enforcement along the border to deny Mexican drug cartels access to the United States,” the governor said.
Mr. Perry has asked the Obama administration for 1,000 National Guard troops to support civilian law enforcement and border patrol agents.
Ms. Napolitano, who will travel to Texas on Thursday to meet with Mr. Perry, said her department is “still considering and looking at that.”
Briefing reporters at the White House, Ms. Napolitano was asked whether her department had evaluated the risk should the Mexican government fail in its fight against the drug cartels. She stressed that U.S. officials don’t expect that to happen.
“I believe the Mexican government will not fail and I believe that our role is to assist in this battle because we have our own security interests in its success,” she said, though she added that the Homeland Security Department has plans for worst-case scenarios.
Her office confirmed that the contingency plans address large-scale unrest and large migrant flows into the U.S.
Contingency planning began last summer, and while officials are reluctant to give out details, if Homeland Security can’t handle the situation the plan could include a “full federal response,” retired Vice Adm. Roger Rufe Jr., the department’s director of operations coordination, told a House panel earlier this month.
He said Homeland Security was working with the National Guard and Defense Department “to make sure we’re ready when the time comes.”
With hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border already each year, it’s difficult to know who’s fleeing violence and who is coming for work or family.
But requests for asylum from Mexicans based on a “credible fear” of persecution jumped dramatically to 312 in fiscal 2008 from 179 in 2007, continuing a long-term trend. In the first quarter of fiscal 2009, the government received 90 requests.
Ms. Napolitano also said that portions of the border fence that were in the process of being built or already funded by the government will be completed, but the Obama administration does not intend to complete a fence along the entire border.
“A wall is not the best way to spend our dollars,” Ms. Napolitano said.
Mr. Obama is deploying Cabinet officials to address the situation.
Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to meet with Mr. Calderon. The State Department said the meetings will touch on the “shared responsibility” for Mexico’s drug wars that are fueled by U.S. consumption of narcotics, trade and climate change.
The president himself will meet with Mr. Calderon in Mexico next month.
Mr. Calderon’s attorney general this week announced the bounties, including $2.1 million for information leading to the arrests of 24 top drug leaders, and half that for 13 other cartel leaders.
It’s the largest group of bounties the Mexican government has ever offered.
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.