- - Wednesday, November 2, 2011

President Obama and the cast auditioning to replace him represent opposing caricatures of bad border security strategy. Mr. Obama, for his part, tries to look tough on border and immigration enforcement, while simultaneously signaling that he will do everything possible to ensure that illegal border crossing becomes a potential ticket to citizenship.

The president’s strategy is not only characterized by inconsistency; it is riddled with pettiness and indifference. Mr. Obama has troubled relations on both sides of the border. He has alienated key border-state governors and has - at best - an ambivalent relationship with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Meanwhile, various federal agencies dabble in the border battles with little overall central direction from the White House.

For the most part, GOP candidates for the Oval Office seem determined to stick to a myopic, bumper-sticker policy: “Secure the border.” That’s an unpromising strategy. At the heart of America’s border insecurity is a $40 billion-a-year criminal enterprise. Smuggling people, drugs, money and cash, as well as conducting kidnapping, prostitution, extortion and murder-for-hire, the cartels are cashing in on every opportunity.

The cartels employ every manner of violence, from bombings to beheadings, inside Mexico. For the most part, this violence has not crossed over the border. But that’s not to say the cartels lack networks that run from deep into most major U.S. cities.

Mexico’s transnational cartels are not about to let a little impediment like border security slow their drive for profits. Interdiction at the border may force them to shift smuggling routes and tactics, but it will not put them out of business.

That’s why a mantra of “secure the border” is so inadequate. In truth, the border cannot be secured without breaking up the cartels, and the cartels cannot be beat on the borders.

Breaking the back of the cartels requires the U.S. to go after these criminal enterprises on both sides of the border.

There is growing consensus on the southern side that, no matter which party wins the next presidential race in Mexico, the government there will want to work with the United States in battling the cartels. That will mean more military-to-military cooperation, as well as programs to build up the capacity of legitimate judicial agencies starting with the national police, judicial and penal systems and then working down to the local level.

On the U.S. side, we need integrated law enforcement operations that go after the cartel networks, as well as the transnational gangs that often provide the foot soldiers for their criminal enterprises.

Working both sides of the border and linking those operations into a coherent campaign seems a bridge too far for this administration, which has produced “cowboy” operations like “Fast and Furious.” That misguided effort to go after cross-border gunrunning did little more than put more weapons on Mexican streets.

What’s needed is a concerted effort to integrate federal security activities. And the shots should be called from an “operational” headquarters on the ground near the border. In Washington-speak, such operations are usually called a “joint-interagency task force.” This task force ought to coordinate capacity building and joint operations with Mexican authorities, a complex task that exceeds the capabilities of the U.S. Embassy team in Mexico City.

If the operations of this task force were paired with a sincere effort to enforce U.S. immigration and workplace laws and establish effective temporary worker programs, then together the U.S. and Mexico could address growing security problems in both countries. It would help Mexico improve its security, economy, and civil society. And it would allow the U.S. to mend its broken southern border.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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