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Analysis: Congress on Mex border violence

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by Shaun Waterman
Washington (UPI) Feb 27, 2009
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress announced hearings Thursday on the possible cross-border impact of spiraling drug violence in Mexico, amid concerns that it is spilling over into the United States.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that a hearing next month in Washington would be followed by one in April in Arizona.

Arizona law enforcement officials say the number of kidnappings has risen in Phoenix, among other places, as the result of the activities of Mexican crime cartels. Facing a crackdown from the Mexican army, cartel leaders have unleashed a spasm of violence south of the border, including firefights with the authorities that a recent State Department travel notice compared to small unit infantry combat, and internal and external feuds characterized by grisly torture and murder, sometimes videotaped and posted on the Web or circulated by e-mail.

That level of violence has not been seen in the United States, but the Arizona Department of Public Safety says armed home invasions reminiscent of cartel activity are also on the rise, including at least one by a heavily armed team wearing paramilitary-style uniforms.

"The violence, crime and drug trafficking in Mexico, due to the raging wars among the drug cartels, is increasingly coming across the border and threatening the safety of Arizonans and all Americans," said committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The Senate hearings will "assess the rising level of violence in northern Mexico and the implications for increased terrorist activity," the committee statement said.

"We will be looking at whether bad actors whose goal is the destruction of the American way of life are finding opportunities to work with Mexican drug cartels," said committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips.

Senators also want to look at how the U.S. government is working with Mexico, the statement said -- for instance through the so-called Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion multiyear counter-narcotics and law enforcement aid package run by the State Department.

On the House side, a Homeland Security Committee notice said the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counter-terrorism would hold a hearing next month on the issue.

Members of the subcommittee had a classified briefing on the issue from officials Thursday, a committee aide told UPI on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Lamar S. Smith, R-Texas, wrote to committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Wednesday, urging him to hold hearings as well. Smith's staff said he had no response as yet and Conyers' spokesman said he had not seen the request.

The Senate hearings also will examine the Department of Homeland Security's role in helping combat the violence and whether its network of fusion centers was effectively coordinating and sharing information.

John P. Walters, who was the Bush administration's drug czar and worked closely with his counterparts in the Calderon government until the transition, told UPI the key lay in dogged cooperation with the Mexican authorities.

"There is unfortunately no substitute for the difficult but doable task of bringing these people to justice," he said.

Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a DEA operation targeting a single Mexican cartel that had included arrests and seizures of weapons, drugs and cash as far afield as Minnesota and Maine. He called the groups "a threat to national security" and pledged to work closely with Mexican authorities to help their crackdown.

Walters said the key to success lay in the long-term work of helping the Mexican government "build the strength of its institutions."

"The problem is, we're impatient," he said.

Walters praised U.S. training and assistance programs for Mexico in the field of personnel protection and the creation and vetting of special federal squads to go into areas where the state and local police might have been bought off or cowed by the cartels.

The violence has "not yet been turned against significant members of the Mexican government," said Walters. "We are trying to help the government as they train and equip more of their institutions to protect these individuals."

There were areas of the country where local and even state police were "suborned, being used as assassins and enforcers and foot-soldiers" by the cartels. For such circumstances, Mexico was developing, with U.S. assistance, "specially trained and vetted groups … both military and police" who could take over law and order responsibilities.

The Senate committee statement said, "Other issues that may arise include … the value of deploying the National Guard … and the potential for mass migration northward."

Most experts dismiss the possibility of state collapse or other developments in Mexico that might lead to such mass migration.

"It's not helpful to talk in terms of state collapse," said Walters, who was not commenting on the committee statement. "That kind of talk is not only uncalled for but weakens the sense that both American and, I believe, Mexican citizens have that they support each other."

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