WASHINGTON — Hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, are headed to the Southwest to help Mexico fight drug cartels and keep violence from spilling across the U.S.-Mexico border, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.
The border security initiative, which expands on efforts begun during the Bush administration, is aimed at drug traffickers who have wreaked havoc in Mexico in recent years and are blamed for a spate of kidnappings and home invasions in some U.S. cities.
"If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done, then we will do more," President Barack Obama said during a prime-time news conference.
The plan was announced earlier Tuesday as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to travel Wednesday to Mexico for the start of several weeks of high-level meetings between the two countries on the drug violence issue. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are expected to meet with Mexican officials in early April.
The Obama administration's multi-agency plan includes nearly 500 agents and support personnel. However, officials did not say where the additional agents would come from or how long they would stay at the border.
Napolitano said officials were still considering whether to deploy the National Guard to the Arizona and Texas borders with Mexico, which the governors had requested.
Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said the combined efforts of the U.S. and Mexican governments would "destroy these criminal organizations."
Rep. Lamar Smith, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said he was happy to see the administration getting more aggressive with the cartels, but he worried about what would see less attention in the U.S.
"I am concerned that when you're taking almost 500 law enforcement agents from one place to another, wherever place they're leaving is going to be understaffed and will mean that some laws are not being enforced," said Smith, R-Texas.
Authorities said they will increase the number of immigrations and customs agents, drug agents and antigun trafficking agents operating along the border. The government also will allow federal funds to be used to pay for local law enforcement involved in southwestern border operations, and send more U.S. officials to work inside Mexico.
Prosecutors say they will make a greater effort to go after those smuggling guns and drug profits from the U.S. into Mexico. Obama, in responding to a question during his news conference, said the U.S. needs to do more to prevent guns and cash from flowing back to the cartels.
"That's part of what's financing their operations. That's part of what's arming them. That's what makes them so dangerous," Obama said. "And this is something that we take very seriously and we're going to continue to work on diligently in the months to come."
Napolitano acknowledged that the fight against the drug cartels is not just in Mexico but in the U.S. where the drugs are sold.
"This is a supply issue, and it's a demand issue," she said. To address the demand, she cited funding set aside for drug courts in the recent stimulus package. She said these drug courts "have been very effective in reducing recidivism among drug offenders."
The administration is also highlighting $700 million that Congress has already approved to support Mexico's efforts to fight the cartels.
Officials said Obama is particularly concerned about killings in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, and that he wants to prevent such violence from spilling over into the United States.
Among the moves the government is making:
—Sending about 350 additional personnel from the Homeland Security Department for a host of border-related work, including doubling the border enforcement security teams that combine local, state and federal officers.
—Adding 16 new Drug Enforcement Administration positions in the southwestern region. DEA currently has more than 1,000 agents working in the region.
—Sending 100 more people form the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the border in the next 45 days.
—Boosting the FBI's intelligence and analysis work on Mexican drug cartel crime.
—Increasing the inspection of rail cargo heading from the U.S. into Mexico and putting X-ray units in place to try to detect weapons being smuggled into Mexico.
In Texas, border counties and cities have largely escaped the spillover of violence that has affected cities such as Phoenix and Atlanta.
In El Paso, for instance, police responded to fewer than 20 homicides in 2008, while their counterparts across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez have handled more than 2,000 killings since January 2008. The situation is similar in Laredo, which shares a border with Nuevo Laredo, and McAllen, just across the Rio Grande from Reynosa.
The plans announced Tuesday fall short of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's request last month that 1,000 troops be sent to bolster border security in his state. Perry said Tuesday that Washington has ignored the border for too long.
"We have been successful in spite of Washington's lack of focus on the border," said Perry, a Republican.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, praised the government's plan as "a great first step."
Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, said the additional federal agents and technology will help, but National Guard troops are needed. In addition, the Obama administration should boost funding for local governments and tribal governments "to respond to the clearly increased threat of violence and kidnappings," Brewer said.