TOPICS > Politics

New ‘Border Czar’ to Tackle Drug Violence, Beef Up Security

April 15, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The administration's new 'border czar' Alan Bersin is charged with improving security and quelling drug violence along the Mexican border. Analysts assess his biggest challenges.
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RAY SUAREZ: Given the recent spate of drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexican border and the hundreds of thousands of people who try to enter the U.S. illegally each year through the southwest, the Obama administration has decided to bring in some extra help: a so-called border czar.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named former federal prosecutor Alan Bersin to the post today in El Paso, Texas.

From 1993 to 1998, Bersin led the government’s crackdown on illegal immigration along the California-Mexico border. During his last three years at the Justice Department, he also served as the southwest border representative for the attorney general.

Bersin’s most immediate challenge is likely to be a drug war that’s grown increasingly violent, with more than 6,300 killed in Mexico just last year. Napolitano said confronting the drug war was vital to the safety of the American people, as well.

JANET NAPOLITANO, secretary of Homeland Security: The rest of the United States has a stake in this, too, that the drugs that come across an unsecured border, infiltrate our neighborhoods and communities across this country. There is no state of this country that does not have a stake in this border.

RAY SUAREZ: The drug violence is likely to be a topic of discussion tomorrow, when President Obama meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City.

Coordinating security efforts

David Shirk
University of San Diego
Ironically, we've never had a U.S. border czar or a Mexican border czar at the same time. And it would probably be very helpful for a homologous position to be developed to help Alan Bersin in the coordination of U.S. and Mexican agencies.

RAY SUAREZ: To explore that challenge and more, we turn to David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, and Sam Quinones, author of the book, "True Tales from Another Mexico." He's been covering this story for the Los Angeles Times.

Professor Shirk, many of the functions that are being talked about with this new job already exist with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Border Patrol, with the secretary of homeland security herself. Why have a border czar?

DAVID SHIRK, University of San Diego: Well, I think the idea is to try to focus and coordinate efforts on the U.S. side in a way that is often difficult to achieve with individual agencies each doing their own thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Alan Bersin had a similar job under Attorney General Janet Reno. Will it be different this time?

DAVID SHIRK: Well, I think the major difference is, in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration created the border czar position, the emphasis at that time was really on addressing undocumented immigration. Now the set of challenges that people are concerned about the most have to do with drug trafficking and drug cartel-related violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Do the Mexicans have a similar job?

DAVID SHIRK: Not presently. In the early years of the Fox administration, there was a border czar appointed at that time on the Mexican side. Ironically, we've never had a U.S. border czar or a Mexican border czar at the same time. And it would probably be very helpful for a homologous position to be developed to help Alan Bersin in the coordination of U.S. and Mexican agencies.

Fighting among cartels

Sam Quinones
Los Angeles Times
All of this has kind of put pressure on routes into the United States, ones that were pretty much established, and this has caused this kind of ferocious, intensely savage kind of violence that you've seen on TV.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam Quinones, when Americans glance at the television or a newspaper, they hear about violence, they see a very tense video of people shooting at people. But who's fighting whom?

SAM QUINONES, Los Angeles Times: Well, in general, there's three things going on. There's wars within certain cartels. They've been fighting among themselves for dominance now that certain capos have been arrested.

There's fights between cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel primarily have been fighting it out. Lately, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel have been battling for the Juarez corridor into the United States.

And, thirdly, there's a new actor on the scene, and that is the Mexican government. For a long time, the Mexican government -- and I'm talking about in the 1970s and '80s -- elements of the Mexican government were involved in kind of facilitating and organizing the drug trade in Mexico. They were very much participants in all this.

Now, many years have passed. A lot of change has come to Mexico. So the new government has a totally different attitude now, and they're going after these cartel guys. They're not just going after loads of dope; they're going after guns, money and the capos themselves.

All of this has kind of put pressure on routes into the United States, ones that were pretty much established, and this has caused this kind of ferocious, intensely savage kind of violence that you've seen on TV in the last -- I would put it, actually, going back to about 2005, was when this all started.

U.S. aid trickling into Mexico

David Shirk
University of San Diego
Unfortunately, the construction of increased fencing, higher levels of surveillance and patrol along key urban corridors of the border basically pushed many of the undocumented immigrants out to desert.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam, last year the United States government announced something called the Merida Initiative, promising about $1.5 billion in security aid for Mexico. Is it very much in evidence, as the Calderon government tries to crack down?

SAM QUINONES: Well, no, because I think only part of that, a portion of it -- I think it's maybe 15 percent or 20 percent of it -- has been funded yet. So I don't think that that has played much of a role.

I think that, you know, folks in the U.S. Congress and folks in the Mexican government are hoping that that will -- that will increase over the next few months.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Shirk, the new border czar, Alan Bersin, is something of a known quantity in the world of people who watch Mexican-American relations because of the work he did in California on the border during the 1990s. Tell us about Operation Gatekeeper and how it's remembered today.

DAVID SHIRK: Well, Operation Gatekeeper, along with Operation Hold the Line and other efforts to concentrate border security resources and clean up the border region, has a mixed history.

On the one hand, it achieved many of its objectives in terms of making it much more difficult for unwanted elements to cross the border, whether it was undocumented immigrants or criminal agents.

Unfortunately, the construction of increased fencing, higher levels of surveillance and patrol along key urban corridors of the border basically pushed many of the undocumented immigrants out to desert and mountain areas and led to much higher levels of death and injury for people crossing the border, moving from double digits to 300, 400 people dying every year coming across the border.

That has -- that legacy of migrant death is something that I think critics of Bersin would attribute to him and to the effort to beef up border security.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Sam, did hardening the California-Mexico border push people to cross into Janet Napolitano's Arizona, where she was the attorney general?

SAM QUINONES: That's correct. I mean, what it did was restore the rule of law, essentially, along the San Diego corridor into the United States. That used to be just a totally chaotic place rife with crime, muggings, murders, and so on.

But as David Shirk says, rightly so, it pushed everything further east. And so now the big corridor, both for smuggling immigrants as well as for smuggling drugs, is up through from Sonora into Arizona and, from there, across the country. So that's pretty much the effect that it had.

Worries about Mexican sovereignty

RAY SUAREZ: Let me ask you both before we go, any time the United States tries to mount operations in coordination with Mexico, there's often, on the Mexican side of the border, worry about Mexican sovereignty. What does Mexico want from the U.S., Professor, at this point?

DAVID SHIRK: I think that Mexico has been calling for many, many years for greater effort on the part of the United States to control weapon smuggling southbound into Mexico.

Gun laws in the United States are very lax compared to the gun laws in Mexico, and there's a perception in Mexico that we're not doing enough to actually control especially the flow of high-powered weapons into Mexico.

The other thing that Mexico often raises is this issue of corruption. Many Mexicans point out that, as much corruption as there may be in Mexico, it's difficult to believe that corruption somehow stops at the border and the reach of drug-trafficking organizations is somehow constrained by the border.

So I think Mexico is also looking for sincere efforts on the part of the United States to identify our responsibility and our contributions to what is a bi-national problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam, I've got time only for a very quick, final thought from you on that question.

SAM QUINONES: I would say, simply, though, that the other side of the coin is that the corruption surely is a problem in Mexico. The lack of strong institutions clearly is a problem in Mexico. If Mexico is looking for that from the United States, another thing they might need to do is look to themselves, as well. This is definitely a problem down there and part of what this war is all about, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam Quinones and Professor Shirk, gentlemen, thank you both.

DAVID SHIRK: Thank you.

SAM QUINONES: Thank you.