Reporter: Tom Ramstack
The threat to the United States from Mexican drug cartels is increasing as they evolve into a wider variety of crimes, witnesses at a congressional hearing said Tuesday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing to consider new strategies against drug cartels as the three-year Merida Initiative expires this year.
The initiative is a treaty signed by the United States and Mexico to combat drug cartels. The U.S. government agreed to contribute $1.5 billion toward the effort.
“We need to re-address what it is we want to accomplish,” said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mexico’s war against drug cartels started in December 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered troops to help police fight the gangs.
About 40,000 people have been killed in the drug war. The worst violence has been reported in Ciudad Juarez, just across a bridge from El Paso, Texas.
Calderon said the cartels threatened Mexico’s self-rule by bribing, intimidating or killing government officials and police.
Some of the same concerns were raised Tuesday during the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
Mack called the drug cartel violence “a well-funded criminal insurgency raging along our southern border, threatening the lives of U.S. citizens and harming the U.S. economy by undermining legal business.”
He proposes a comprehensive U.S. effort against the cartels that combines efforts of the Treasury Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and State Department.
He also wants to double the number of Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border.
Witnesses from among the academic institutions and public policy organizations said Mexico’s judicial system needs to be strengthened against gang influence.
“Their wealth gives them the power to corrupt public officials and potentially influence election outcomes,” Pamela K. Starr, director of the U.S.-Mexico Network said in her testimony.
The State Department has been working on a strategy that would shift more U.S. government aid to police in Mexico’s northern states, which are crisscrossed with drug smuggling routes.
William Brownfield, an assistant secretary of State who oversees illegal drug issues, has been meeting with federal, state and local law enforcement personnel in Mexico in recent days to discuss new counter-insurgency strategies.
Brownfield called the drug cartels “transnational organizations” that Mexico cannot stop by itself. He spoke during a press conference in Mexico City last week.
Until now, much of the U.S. government Merida Initiative money has been dedicated to equipping and training the Mexican military.
However, some U.S. diplomats say funding and military equipment is hard to trace to successful efforts against drug cartels. The equipment has included military helicopters and surveillance devices.
Aid to Mexico’s northern border police would be more effective in preventing drug and arms smuggling, Brownfield said.
“This is where most of the cartels have focused their activities,” Brownfield said.
A stepped-up pace of U.S. government assistance also is creating controversy in Mexico, where some politicians express concerns publicly that their sovereignty is threatened.
The complaints reached a crescendo this summer amid media reports about Operation Fast and Furious.
The more than year-long operation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives involved allowing smugglers to take guns illegally into Mexico so they could be traced to drug lords.
However, Mexican police say the guns also were traced to at least 170 violent crimes in Mexico, including murders. Politicians on both sides of the border said the law enforcement operation was irresponsible.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns tried to address the Mexicans’ concerns about being squelched by their northern neighbor during a press conference last week in Mexico City.
“We do not engage in law enforcement activities,” Burns said. “What we do is to help, consistent with the wishes of the Mexican authorities… So we take a very practical approach, but we follow the lead of the Mexican authorities and try to provide the support that they need most and that contributes most to our common cause.”