U.S. to Step Up Mexico Anti-Drug Cartel Efforts

Planned surge of federal resources aims to stem flow of cash, guns to Mexico.

March 23, 2009, 4:04 PM

March 24, 2009— -- The Obama administration has unveiled a plan to help the Mexican government confront the powerful drug cartels that operate in that country and spread violence across the border into the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Deputy Attorney General David Ogden laid out details of what the White House calls a "comprehensive response to the situation along the border with Mexico."

"Department of Justice stands ready to take the fight to the Mexican drug cartels," Ogden said in a White House briefing with reporters.

Noting President Obama's concern about the "increased level of violence," particularly in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, the White House also said that the United States will invest $700 million for collaborative efforts with Mexican law enforcement and the judicial system, and that the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and Treasury Department "are all ramping up personnel and efforts directed at the Southwest border."

Additionally, the administration plan calls for a renewed commitment "to reduce the demand for illegal drugs here at home."

Napolitano described the goal as twofold: First, to help the Mexican government break up the drug cartels. "They are heavily armed and they are using terrorist tactics," she said in an interview with ABC News. Second, to contain the violence. "We don't want those terrorist tactics spilling over into the U.S," she said.

The plan includes a surge of federal agents, who will focus on stemming the flow of firearms and millions of dollars into Mexico.

The long-range goal of the operation is to try to reduce the firepower of the cartels, whose members often have better weaponry than Mexican authorities. If U.S. authorities can capture more of the proceeds of the Mexican drug trade heading south into Mexico, the sources said, the administration believes it will have a crippling effect over time.

As part of the effort, Homeland Security will double the number of personnel on its Border Enforcement Security Task Forces from 90 to 180, triple the number of intelligence analysts working along the border, and increase attache staff in Mexico to assist with legal matters.

Other sectors of Homeland Security and several other departments and agencies, such as the Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI are stepping up their efforts to stem the violence and trafficking issues.

Napolitano will be meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry later this week, and traveling with Attorney General Eric Holder to Mexico next week. She said she and the governor will discuss the possibility of deploying National Guard troops along with Texas-Mexico border.

When asked about the ongoing building of the border wall, the secretary said construction on portions that have already been funded will continue. But "if you've ever worked on these cartel cases, as I have as a prosecutor, you know that a wall is not the best way to spend our dollars to prevent these drugs from coming into the United States and to be able to apprehend and prosecute the smugglers themselves," she said.

Mexico Drug Wars: Murders, Cocaine, Marijuana and Meth

The government's allocation of $700 million comes under the Merida Initiative, the United States' partnership with Mexico and other nations in Central America and the Caribbean to boost efforts against criminal organizations.

The money will help fund increased border security efforts by Mexican authorities, inspection technology, training, five helicopters, information technology and support for Mexico's legal system, including stepped-up efforts "to strengthen observance of human rights by judicial authorities and police," as well as the establishment of witness and victim protection programs, according to a White House news release.

The Mexican cartels have been expanding their presence in the United States, and now have drug dealing cells and affiliates operating in at least 200 communities in this country, according to law enforcement sources. The criminal organizations are believed to be responsible for kidnappings and murders within the United States in addition to extraordinary carnage in Mexico.

In addition to dispatching agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there is a possibility that the National Guard could help with the operations if the situation worsens, but it is unclear if that step will be needed.

Members of President Obama's Cabinet have had Mexico on their agenda recently, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to head south of the border Wednesday and Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement last month that the U.S. arrested hundreds of members of a cartel operating in the United States.

Clinton's itinerary includes stops in Mexico City and Monterrey to discuss the Merida Initiative.

The governments have their work cut out for them.

Last week, State Department officials testified about the initiative on Capitol Hill, noting that estimates put drug-related murders in Mexico at as many as 6,200 in 2008.

Additionally, an estimated 90 percent of cocaine trafficked in the United States makes its way through Mexico first. The country is also said to be a major supplier of both marijuana and methamphetamine.

Mexican Cartels Engaged in "Increasingly Violent Conflict'

The State Department has warned of the violent situations throughout Mexico, cautioning U.S. citizens living in and traveling to that country to be vigilant.

"Mexican drug cartels are engaged in an increasingly violent conflict -- both among themselves and with Mexican security services -- for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border," the current alert says.

Kidnappings, daytime shootouts in public places and a "fluid" situation in northern Mexico have all contributed to the heightened security situation there, the warning states.

Holder, appearing at the Justice Department Feb. 25 with acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart, vowed that cartels "will be destroyed."

Holder and Leonhart announced the results of a DEA operation that targeted the Sinaloa cartel, including arrests of more than 750 suspected members across the United States and seizure of more than 23 tons of narcotics in less than two years.

"International drug trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to international safety and security. They are a national security threat," Holder said, adding that the cartels "bear the hallmarks of organized crime, married to savvy business practices that allow for successful international commerce," adding that they operate "with stunning planning and precision."

ABC News' Theresa Cook and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.