President Trump doubled down Thursday on his demand for a border wall, warning of the growing threat of drug cartels and criminal gangs he said have “literally taken over towns and cities of the United States.”
Emerging from a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country has struggled for years with cartel-fueled violence, Mr. Trump said drug crime has become a “dangerous threat to our societies.” He called for international cooperation in pursuing smugglers and for infrastructure to keep them out of the U.S. in the first place.
“The drug epidemic is poisoning too many American lives, and we’re going to stop it in many different ways. One of them will be the wall,” Mr. Trump said.
Even though illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border appears to be down dramatically under Mr. Trump, the flow of drugs remains high — with heroin and other serious narcotics surging.
The changes suggest that Mr. Trump’s get-tough approach inside the U.S. has deterred would-be migrants but that cartels continue their smuggling operations freely.
In Texas, border officials last week reported a 177 percent increase in heroin and a 129 percent increase in cocaine seized by agents and officers so far this year. They also said cartels are trying new ways to get their contraband into the U.S. — stuffing them into fruit shipments, concealing them in gas tanks and even carrying methamphetamine in liquid form inside juice cartons.
The root of the problem spans the hemisphere, with cultivation in many countries and trafficking routes running through Mexico and along the waterways to get the product to the U.S., where Americans’ demand is insatiable.
“We Americans must own this problem,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said after a meeting Thursday morning with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and their Mexican counterparts.
Mr. Kelly said cutting American demand is a central part of the solution — and that includes casual users who don’t think the drugs are a problem.
“Playing around with drugs on a weekend for fun ultimately ends or results in the lives lost in Mexico by law enforcement and by the military, or lives lost in Colombia or Central America,” he said. “If Americans that use drugs recreationally understood that and stopped doing that, that would significantly reduce the amount of drugs and, consequently, the amount of profits that come out of the United States.”
He painted a hauntingly tragic portrait of the dangers from cartels intent on profiting from the trade.
“The drug traffickers are extremely agile, extremely innovative in how they do business, incredibly brutal,” Mr. Kelly said. “If you won’t take their bribes and their money, they’ll kill your daughter and make their point that way. So it’s all about drug demand and drug demand reduction.”
Challenged on the border wall, Mr. Kelly said “physical barriers work” — though they are just one aspect of a solution that also requires technology and better regional cooperation.
Congress has been skeptical of Mr. Trump’s proposed wall, saying the administration has yet to develop its plans. Neither the Homeland Security Department nor the White House has said how many miles of fencing are needed, and they are still struggling to figure out a funding source to make good on Mr. Trump’s promise to force Mexico to pay for the barrier.
Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency that will oversee the wall, said it has selected finalists to submit detailed proposals. The winners of the phase two competition will then be asked to build prototypes this summer, using money shifted from within the Homeland Security budget.
CBP refused to divulge the names of the phase two companies or even to say how many companies were chosen.
Congress is wary of spending money at this point, and zeroed out Mr. Trump’s request for an initial infusion of funds in the 2017 spending bill that passed this month.
Mr. Trump is expected to come back in his 2018 budget next week with an even bigger request.
Mr. Santos, asked about the wall during a joint news conference with Mr. Trump on Thursday, demurred on the specific question, instead saying the drug problem will require collaboration.
“It’s a world problem, and we have to all work together,” he said.
Mr. Trump called that a diplomatic answer and gave his own evaluation.
“Walls work. Just ask Israel. They work. Believe me, they work,” he said.