US tightens up violent Mexican border

Hillary Clinton arrives Wednesday with a new border security plan that signals greater cooperation between the two countries.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
DRUG BUST: Mexican federal police, wearing masks to hide their identities, stand behind suspected members of the Pacifico drug cartel in the Mexico City on March 12.

The United States unveiled Tuesday a beefed-up, multiagency security plan for the US-Mexico border that reflects President Obama's recognition of the "two-way" street responsible for rising drug violence. The plan allows Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to emphasize cooperative action when she visits the embattled southern neighbor Wednesday.

The border security policy includes the formation of a new FBI-directed Southwest Intelligence Group, relocating 100 federal agents to the border to curtail gun trafficking, and sending more federal agents to Mexico to coordinate counternarcotics operations. But it does not endorse Texas Gov. Rick Perry's call for National Guard troops on the border.

Mexico's drug war is spreading north. US officials say Mexican drug cartels now operate in some 200 American cities. The new plan – which combines both the $1.4 billion, multiyear antidrug plan Congress approved last year (the Merida Initiative), and new money from this year's stimulus – is designed to increase cooperation with Mexico.

The new initiative – coordinated by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and announced by her and senior State Department and Justice officials in a White House briefing – also underscores the growing concerns in US border states, and in Washington, over signs of spillover violence. Last year, more than 6,000 people were killed in Mexico's drug war. It's no accident that one of Homeland Security's border-focused efforts is called Operation Firewall.

Yet the new plan Secretary Clinton will explain to her Mexican counterparts also reflects a new recognition from the Obama administration of "co-responsibility" for drug-related violence and lawlessness. President Obama suggested this perspective when he spoke earlier this month of a "two-way situation" affecting the border. "The drugs are coming north; we're sending funds [laundered drug money] and guns south," he told reporters.

New era of co-responsibility?

The recognition of co-responsibility is both a welcome shift in US thinking for Mexico, and a reflection of reality, border security analysts say. "Both sides are recognizing more and more that there is no way Mexico can do this without the US contributing significantly," says Roderic Ai Camp, a Mexico expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "US demand, arms shipments back to Mexico, laundered money back to Mexico, all of those factors contribute significantly to the success of drug cartels."

Some experts note that this administration's emphasis on cross-border cooperation is not new. The US has supported President Felipe Calderón's get-tough approach to drug cartels, including the deployments of thousands of troops across the country. The Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion plan to help Mexico and Central America combat drug infiltration, was passed last year.

What strikes some about the Obama initiative is that it reflects not just the gravity of Mexico's situation, but in fact an increasingly mature binational relationship. If the US can undertake an ambitious security initiative with multiple levels of law-enforcement cooperation, it's because there is a state and official players to work with, says Michael Shifter, vice-president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"Mexico is facing a grave challenge and a threatening level of violence, but we're not talking Afghanistan here," says Mr. Shifter. "Mexico is a state that has built up its governmental capacities and effectiveness in recent years, but it's also a neighbor that is now under stress and needs reinforcement."

Clinton's two-day trip, which includes meetings in the capital and the industrial city of Monterrey, will be followed by visits from Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, who will attend an arms trafficking conference next month. President Obama will stop in Mexico on his way to the Summit of the Americas next month in Trinidad and Tobago.

"Mexico is in the middle of a very difficult war against organized crime. … and [Mexican President] Calderón needs to show that he has control of Mexico," says Ana Maria Salazar, a national security specialist in Mexico and former official in President Clinton's administration. "The best scenario coming out from the trips, more than specific projects, is the tone that denotes that the US recognizes its responsibility to work with the Mexican government."

Mexico's drug problem is a US problem

It's typical for high-level meetings to mark the beginning of an incoming administration, but this flurry of US attention comes amid intense congressional interest and growing pressure in the US to address Mexico's spiraling violence. "Mexico's security situation is no longer a foreign policy issue only; it's now on the domestic agenda too," says Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.

On Monday, Mexico laid out its own initiative ahead of Clinton's visit: In a public challenge to the cartels, it announced it would offer up to $2 million each for information leading to the arrest of the 24 top drug lords.

Not all have hopes that the string of visits by top US officials will deliver anything other than the status quo. "There are no new ideas in Mexico; basically down here all they have talked about is staying the course," says Dan Lund, a political analyst and president of the MUND Group in Mexico City.

While security will dominate Clinton's visit, she arrives in the midst of a trade dispute, prompted by the US suspension of a pilot program to allow Mexican long-haul trucks to travel on highways in the US. Mexico, which says the decision violates the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), responded last week by placing tariffs on 90-odd US exports – worrying US farmers and manufacturers at a time when both economies are slackening.

But most analysts say that security will overshadow all other topics, including immigration reform and economic integration.

"If you didn't have 6,000-plus deaths [in the drug fight], we would not see so many people going to Mexico in the beginning of the [Obama] administration," says Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. But there is an upside. "What is happening is there is recognition by the US government that [security] is a mutual problem. Given this, there is an opportunity to form a real partnership that spans beyond security… which depends on so many issues, like trade and economic issues and migration."

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Highlights of US Border Security Plan with Mexico

Doubling Border Enforcement Security Task (BEST) Forces.

Tripling Homeland Security intelligence analysts working along US-Mexico border.

Quadrupling US Border Liaison Officers working with Mexican law enforcement entities.

Drug Enforcement Agency adding 16 agents to Southwest border divisions. Now, 29 percent of DEA's 1,171 agents are now in the Southwest border field divisions

Bureau of Alcohol , Tobacco, Firearms Relocating 100 personnel to the border in the next 45 days, to fortify its efforts designed to stop gun-running to Mexico.

Expanding treatment capacity of US drug courts, including $63.9 million in 2009 budget.

$700 million budgeted for 2008 and 2009 for enhancing Mexican law enforcement and judicial capacity under the Merida Initiative.

Source: White House press office

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