TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Tightens Border Security as Mexico’s Drug War Rages On

March 24, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans Tuesday for bolstering security along the country's southwest border in an effort to curb spillover from Mexico's deadly drug war. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: In response to an increasingly bloody drug war in Mexico, the Obama administration announced measures to prevent the spread of violence into the United States.

In what it called a major security initiative, the administration said it would double the number of agents along the border and provide more equipment to fight the Mexican drug cartels.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined the plan this morning.

JANET NAPOLITANO, Secretary of Homeland Security: Our goal is twofold. One is to provide assistance to the government of Mexico to break up these huge cartels which are funneling tonnage quantities of illegal drugs into our country on a regular basis and are conducting this war of violence within Mexico that has resulted in over 6,000 homicides, over 550 of which were assassinations of law enforcement and public official personnel.

Drug-related violence increases

Janet Napolitano
Homeland Security Secretary
What we want to do is to better secure the border area against further violence and make it a safe and secure area where, of course, the rule of law is upheld and enforced.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Violence between the Mexican government and the drug lords and among the cartels themselves surged after President Felipe Calderon deployed 45,000 army troops and federal police to fight the drug trade in December of 2006. Since then, some 10,000 people have died.

The second part of the U.S. plan is designed to stem the spread of violence into the border states.

JANET NAPOLITANO: We've seen some increase in violence primarily between cartels themselves -- kidnappings, for example, in the Phoenix area and the Houston area. But what we want to do is to better secure the border area against further violence and make it a safe and secure area where, of course, the rule of law is upheld and enforced.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Secretary Napolitano also outlined some of the specifics.

JANET NAPOLITANO: We are moving mobile X-ray units to the border. These will be used to help identify anomalies in passenger vehicles. Well, what does that mean? That means we're trying to identify vehicles that are carrying arms into Mexico that are being used in the drug war in Mexico.

U.S. drug demand a factor

Arturo Sarukhan
Mexican Ambassador to the United States
Drug trafficking does not operate in a vacuum. It isn't just an issue in Mexico; it's an issue in Mexico because Mexico sits next to the largest consumer market of illicit drugs in the world.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of the initiatives announced today continue or expand programs that were already in place under the Bush administration. But even in the two months since President Obama took office, the war has intensified.

ANDREW SELEE, Woodrow Wilson Center: The cartels are fighting over trafficking routes to get drugs across Mexico and into the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Andrew Selee studies the Mexican drug issue at the Woodrow Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.

ANDREW SELEE: The Mexican government has been very aggressive in the past few years going after a group of drug cartels that control most of the cocaine trade into the United States. They have managed to reshuffle the leadership. They've arrested and killed a lot of the key leaders. What we have right now are new leaders of the cartels who've gone to war with each other.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, said demand from the U.S. side is at the root of the problem.

ARTURO SARUKHAN, Ambassador, Mexico: You have to understand that drug trafficking does not operate in a vacuum. It isn't just an issue in Mexico; it's an issue in Mexico because Mexico sits next to the largest consumer market of illicit drugs in the world. And as drug-trafficking organizations have their trafficking routes through Mexico, so do they have their distribution networks in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The violence is further fueled by billions of dollars in firearms purchased legally in the U.S. but smuggled across the border, along with bulk cash from drug sales sent back to Mexico by the cartels.

You mean, some of these guys are just driving around in trucks that are just full of cash?

ANDREW SELEE: It sounds incredible, but literally, I mean, these are proceeds, billions of dollars in proceeds from drug sales that are coming down U.S. highways in trucks and cars and vans, going down through border areas, and then being broken into smaller shipments and taken across the border.

Arizona bears brunt of problem

Gabrielle Giffords
U.S. Representative (D-Ariz.)
Violence is increasing. Drug traffic is increasing. And for my ranchers and farmers and my communities that live on the border, there's a real concern about violence spilling over.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ambassador Sarukhan says the billions of dollars of illegal guns coming across the border are a particular worry.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Mexico has very, very stringent gun control laws. You can't buy a weapon in Mexico. You can't go into a store and purchase a firearm.

So all of these weapons are coming across the border from the United States; 90 percent of all the weapons that we seize in Mexico originated in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Justice Department says the cartels have infiltrated 230 American cities in nearly all 50 states, but nowhere have there been more problems than in Arizona, where hundreds of people have been kidnapped, many of them with connections to Mexico.

Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords represents the Eighth Congressional District that includes Tucson.

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (D), Arizona: Violence is increasing. Drug traffic is increasing. And for my ranchers and farmers and my communities that live on the border, there's a real concern about violence spilling over.

My home over the last couple of years, three times burglarized. A lot of that has to deal with petty drug-runners or people that are drug addicts that need, you know, a quick hit. They need to get money in a quick way, so you see the number of burglaries that are increasing.

And it hits home to you. And you sort of -- once it happens to you personally, you realize, oh, my goodness. You start to study the numbers.

U.S.-Mexico partnership

Arturo Sarukhan
Mexican Ambassador to the United States
We have to have that holistic understanding of how this works to be able to shut it down using different tools and working regionally with other hemispheric partners.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ambassador Sarukhan says his country and the U.S. will have to work together to solve this problem because the two countries are bound up with each other.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: What's going on, on the border is an example of how intertwined these two societies have become. And in many ways, the fact that a kid, a youngster in Atoka, Oklahoma, is consuming drugs from Mexico or that came from Colombia in transit through Mexico has a very profound impact on the level of violence not only inside Mexico, but along the border. We're co-stakeholders to ensuring that we shut these guys down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is this thing winnable?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: I think that we have the possibility to mitigate the damage being done by the drug syndicates. I think that we can certainly bring down the levels of violence to a minimum. I think that we can, together, work to encourage our youngsters to understand the dangers and the perils of illicit drugs. I think that it's all about harm reduction and harm mitigation.

What I'm suggesting here is that the way we fight drugs is like a water-filled balloon. You squeeze here, and it's going to bulge out here. And we have to have that holistic understanding of how this works to be able to shut it down using different tools and working regionally with other hemispheric partners.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Border security will be at the top of the agenda when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with officials in Mexico City this week. Her visit will be followed by Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder next week. And in April, President Obama himself will go there.