January 10, 2008
Local law enforcement leaders said Friday they knew little of a federal plan that would create a "surge" of civilian and military force along the border, should Mexican drug violence overflow into the United States.
Frequent reports of widespread murders and kidnappings in Mexico prompted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to order the contingency plan last summer in case that activity spread north, a department spokeswoman said.
But local and federal law enforcement agents operating in the Rio Grande Valley seem to have been left out of the strategy's planning stages.
"Nobody on the border even knows about this," Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño said. "It's not like we're living in the Wild West and people are killing each other left and right. I am almost sure (Chertoff) didn't consult any local law enforcement to develop that evaluation."
The plan - first reported Thursday in The New York Times - would be activated only if needed by local authorities, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
"We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge ... capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with," the Defense Department, Chertoff told the Times.
Suspected drug cartel violence claimed more than 5,300 lives across Mexico last year, according to that country's authorities.
Mexican border cities across from the Valley had their share of cartel-related violence and arrests during 2008, but not to the same degree as cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, where killings and kidnappings became a part of daily life.
For about a year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has directed military troops to patrol cities across his country to combat the violence.
The Homeland Security contingency plan follows the same model used during other times of crisis, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters, and calls for the deployment of additional federal agents or military personnel to the border should local law enforcement request it, department officials said.
Federal law prevents the military from taking over law enforcement duties on U.S. soil without Congressional approval.
"The plan doesn't supersede any authorities," DHS spokeswoman Kudwa said. "At this point, local authorities have had the situation in hand."
But Treviño said he sees the plan as an attempt by the federal government to interfere with local law enforcement.
"It is obvious it is an attempt to meddle in state and local problems, and I don't think it's his job," he said of the Homeland Security secretary.
‘DETACHED FROM REALITY'
Parts of the plan have already been activated, Kudwa said, without giving specifics.
But some local federal agents - speaking on background - said they had not even heard of it.
Homeland Security policymakers in the nation's capital "hardly ever consult with local police forces," said Tony Payan, a border violence expert and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, across the border from Juarez.
"It is very typical for Washington, D.C., to determine what the security threat is - sometimes misguidedly - and then to come up with a plan that may be detached from reality," he said.
Department officials did talk to state leaders about the strategy, however.
Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, told The Associated Press that state officials were briefed on the plan but were not consulted beforehand about a strategy to fight Mexican drug cartels on the 1,254-mile border the country shares with Texas.
State leaders have their own specific security plans for each area of the Texas border, should violence from Mexico become an issue.
Cesinger declined to detail those plans Friday.
TIME FOR CHANGE?
But the controversial border violence contingency plan could be up for review as soon as Chertoff steps down from his post in less than two weeks.
President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to succeed Chertoff as the Homeland Security secretary. Her confirmation hearings are set to begin in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.
Obama, meanwhile, is set to meet with Calderón on Monday to discuss the drug war and immigration issues.
Should Napolitano be confirmed, she would likely change how the department handles border security issues, Payan said.
For Sheriff Treviño, that may be a silver lining.
"We will not have to worry about Mr. Chertoff and this ridiculous plan of his after the 20th" of January, he said.