New York Times
January 7, 2009
The soaring level of violence in Mexico resulting from the drug wars there has led the United States to develop plans for a “surge” of civilian and perhaps even military law enforcement should the bloodshed spread across the border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.
Mr. Chertoff said the criminal activity in Mexico, which has caused more than 5,300 deaths in the last year, had long troubled American authorities. But it reached a point last summer, he said, where he ordered specific plans to confront in this country the kind of shootouts and other mayhem that in Mexico have killed members of warring drug cartels, law enforcement officials and bystanders, often not far from the border.
“We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge — if I may use that word — capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with” the Defense Department, Mr. Chertoff said in a telephone interview.
Officials of the Homeland Security Department said the plan called for aircraft, armored vehicles and special teams to converge on border trouble spots, with the size of the force depending on the scale of the problem. Military forces would be called upon if civilian agencies like the Border Patrol and local law enforcement were overwhelmed, but the officials said military involvement was considered unlikely.
Mr. Chertoff has expressed concern in recent months about the violence in Mexico, but the contingency plan has not been publicly debated, and the department has made no announcement of it. Department officials said Mr. Chertoff had mentioned it only in passing.
Aides to members of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the department and has often clashed with Mr. Chertoff over his border policies, said Wednesday that they had heard little about the plan, though they welcomed it.
“We support almost anything to secure our border,” said Dena Graziano, a spokeswoman for the committee.
Mr. Chertoff said that he had advised Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to succeed him as homeland security secretary, that “I put helping Mexico get control of its borders and its organized crime problems” at the very top of the list of national security concerns.
Ms. Napolitano’s confirmation hearing begins next week. Her office denied requests for an interview.
In the wide-ranging interview with Mr. Chertoff, two weeks before he leaves office, he suggested that his controversial efforts to rapidly build a fence along nearly 700 miles of the Mexican border, as well as his bolstering the size of the Border Patrol, were part of the push to defend against drug violence, not just to control illegal immigration.
“That’s another reason, frankly, why I have been insistent on putting in the infrastructure and fencing and stuff like that,” he said. “Because I don’t want, God forbid, if there is ever a spillover of significance, to have denied the Border Patrol anything they need to protect the lives and safety of American citizens.”
He said the Border Patrol had reached a target of more than 18,000 agents by December, though some are still in training and not yet patrolling. Officials of the agents’ union contend that the rapid buildup, to a size double that of less than a decade ago, and the agency’s turnover have resulted in a largely inexperienced corps.
Fencing has gone up on 580 miles of the 2,000-mile border, short of the planned 661 miles, but Mr. Chertoff said he expected it to reach the final mark sometime in the coming months.
And though he said he regretted not seeking more advice initially from the Border Patrol on developing the “virtual fence,” the much-publicized and much-delayed system of cameras and sensors to supplement border personnel, Mr. Chertoff predicted that it would gain widespread use in the coming years.
Mr. Chertoff said the department’s efforts to increase enforcement at the border and conduct immigration raids at workplaces had led to the lowest level of illegal immigration in decades, though he acknowledged that the recession had also had an impact on the number of illegal border crossings.
He expressed no regret over the department’s tactics, often criticized by immigrants’ advocates as draconian and a cause of family separation, and disputed critics who suggest that the department is sprawling and in need of “reform.”
Mr. Obama used that word in introducing Ms. Napolitano and describing what she would bring to the job of overseeing a department created in 2003 out of 22 agencies and now employing more than 200,000 people, making it the third-largest cabinet-level department.
There has been speculation in Washington that the Obama administration will reinstate the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an independent body outside of the department.
But Mr. Chertoff said that as part of the Homeland Security apparatus, FEMA had redeemed itself after an admittedly poor response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He pointed to more recent disaster responses, including the generally praised federal reaction to Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast last summer.“What I would not do,” he said, “is start to monkey around with the major working parts, because that is only going to set us back.”