U.S. Dispatches Additional Agents To Mexican Border

Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano announced Tuesday that 500 more agents will be sent to the border with Mexico to fight the country's drug cartels and prevent violence from spilling over to the U.S. Some lawmakers have called for stronger government intervention along the border.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Mexico's drug war has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the past year and now, it's spilling across the border into the U.S. The violence has gotten the attention of the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Mexico tomorrow. And today, the Obama administration announced plans to send more law enforcement personnel to the border. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, the effort is meant to stop the flow of guns and money heading south, and the flow of drugs heading north.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The White House says President Obama is concerned by the increased level of violence in northern Mexico, and the impact it's having on both sides of the border. In addition to the thousands of deaths in Mexico, there's been a sharp increase in kidnappings among drug gangs in U.S. cities, most notably, Phoenix. The policy outlined today aims to stop the violence from spreading by ramping up the deployment of U.S. enforcement on the American side of the border, and by stepping up cooperation with the Mexican government. It was outlined at the White House this morning by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Homeland Security): We've seen some increase in violence, primarily between cartels themselves - kidnappings, for example, in the Phoenix area, in 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.

NAYLOR: Among the steps outlined today: increasing the number of agents from the Border Patrol, the DEA, ATF and FBI along the border; deploying new technology, including X-rays that can see through clothing, license plate readers and biometric ID devices; even K9 patrols are being increased. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden likened the Justice Department's efforts against Mexican drug cartels to its fight against the Mafia.

Mr. DAVID OGDEN (Deputy Attorney General): As the department did in dismantling La Costa Nostra, these new resources will build on the framework already in place to disrupt and dismantle the Mexican drug cartels.

NAYLOR: A $700 million program started under the Bush administration, called the Merida Initiative, is already helping the Mexican government improve law enforcement by providing equipment such as helicopters and communications technology. It's also helping train Mexican officials in the rule of law and aiding judicial reform. Napalitano says today's steps continue the process.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: If anything, this is really the first wave of things that will be happening. And we're already seeing, I think, some changes along the border. For example, the communities and the border towns themselves, some of them are actually reporting a decrease in violent crime.

NAYLOR: Naplitano said no decision has been made yet on whether to send National Guard troops to the border, as the governors of Texas and Arizona have requested. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, says he wants the Homeland Security Department's budget increased to deal with the threat of Mexican drug violence.

He also hopes Congress will try again to close the so-called gun show loophole, which exempts weapons buyers from having to undergo a criminal background check if they buy arms at a gun show rather than from a store.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Licensed dealers who sell at gun shows have to conduct background checks, but individuals who sell guns there do not.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): We have some evidence that the drug cartels from Mexico are paying people in the U.S. to go to gun shows and buy the weapons that they are then smuggling back in to fuel this war among drug cartels. So I think it's time to take a look at that legislation again.

NAYLOR: The Obama administration is increasing its diplomatic efforts with Mexico at the same time it builds up law enforcement. Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder travel there next week. And Mr. Obama himself visits Mexican President Felipe Calderon next month. In a statement, the White House said Mr. Obama admires President Calderon's courage and, quote, we stand shoulder to shoulder with him in the fight to confront and dismantle the drug cartels.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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White House Orders Agents To U.S.-Mexico Border

The White House on Tuesday released a plan to deal with drug-related violence in Mexico, sending 500 more agents to the U.S.-Mexico border and for the first time addressing the problem of U.S.-made guns being smuggled south by violent drug cartels.

The multi-agency effort puts more federal personnel on the border to conduct inspections of Mexico-bound vehicles for weapons and money from drug sales. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will send 100 employees to the border within the next 45 days to fortify Project Gunrunner, a program that has already resulted in the seizure of thousands of weapons and criminal cases against 1,500 people.

Last year, more than 6,000 people died in drug-related violence in Mexico, and the situation has intensified as Mexican police and soldiers battle drug cartels for control of Mexico's border cities. This year, more than 1,000 people have been killed — primarily police officers, soldiers and traffickers.

Officials are concerned that the violence could spill over to the U.S. side of the border, though border officials in Texas said that has not happened, so far.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she has not yet decided if she will send the National Guard to the Texas and Arizona borders, as the states' governors have requested. She said she will discuss the matter Thursday with Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and the drug war is expected to be high on their agenda.

Tuesday's announcement included an outline of how $700 million approved by Congress to aid Mexico will be spent. The money was approved under the Merida Initiative, a Bush era security pact between the U.S., Mexico and countries in Central America.

The money will pay for five helicopters for the Mexican army and air force, and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican navy.

The money will also provide information technology so Mexican prosecutors and law enforcement officers can communicate securely; provide training for implementation of Mexico's new legal system; and help develop a witness protection program.

On the U.S. side, the administration said that $5 billion was committed last year for drug abuse initiatives.

The Obama administration plans to focus efforts on integrating substance abuse services into national health care systems with early screening, diagnosis and intervention as regular preventative medicine to reach the millions of patients who need treatment, and as a means to prevent millions more from becoming dependent.

From NPR and wire service reports.

Correction March 25, 2009

We said, "He [Sen. Joseph Lieberman] also hopes Congress will try again to close the so-called gun show loophole, which exempts weapons buyers from having to undergo a criminal background check if they buy arms at a gun show rather than from a store." In fact, licensed dealers who sell at gun shows have to conduct background checks, although individuals who sell guns there do not.

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