The White House on Tuesday unveiled a strategy aimed at stemming the Mexican cartels' illicit drug shipments into the U.S., estimated to be worth at least $15 billion annually, and limiting the volume of weapons and cash smuggled back to Mexico. The plan includes some $700 million in existing aid for Mexican law enforcement designated by the Bush administration.
However, competing agencies have refused to work together on the task forces that the administration is bolstering to target the drugs, guns and cash that are fueling fighting among Mexico's drug lords, according to the agency officials.
And adding to the problem, the agencies are operating under rules that are up to three decades old, said former senior agency officials and members of Congress involved in oversight.
Tuesday's strategy announcement marks a White House effort to respond to growing concerns over the clout of Mexican narcotics barons whose heavily armed forces are fighting each other over turf and drug-trafficking routes into the U.S. The drug lords are also taking on Mexican government troops mobilized by Mexican President Felipe Calderón to stop the drug wars.
Violence has become especially pronounced in border towns that are crucial links between the U.S. and Mexico, such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. An estimated 6,000 people were killed in Mexican drug violence last year.
The biggest immediate impact of the new program is likely to come from the addition of more than 360 Department of Homeland Security agents heading to the border or crossing into Mexico to work with authorities there. The deployment, announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, is expected to cost up to $184 million. Existing resources will be shifted away from less-urgent initiatives to cover the cost.
Mexico-U.S.: A Violent Border
The U.S. will also deploy new equipment for scanning vehicles headed into Mexico, U.S. officials said. In addition, the Justice Department will send at least 116 more of its own agents from two agencies -- the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- to help on the initiative.
But the Mexico crisis is highlighting existing rivalries among these agencies. Both Ms. Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder have privately assured members of Congress that they would resolve any interagency disputes, congressional aides said. A Homeland Security spokeswoman said Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Holder had a longstanding personal relationship and would work together.
But as of this week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was refusing to allow some of its agents to participate in several of the special task force groups established by the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate border efforts to crack down on guns and drug proceeds headed to Mexico, said bureau and Homeland Security officials.
The bureau investigates illegal gun sales inside the U.S., while Homeland Security enforces laws against the illegal export of guns.
While bureau agents work on these task forces in Texas, regional leaders have refused to join the same effort in Arizona, officials from both agencies acknowledged. An internal Homeland Security intelligence analysis on the flow of guns into Mexico named Arizona as a major corridor.
Bureau officials defended the agency's decision to participate only on the Texas-based teams, saying the state is the origin of half the guns used in Mexican crimes that are traced back to the U.S.
The White House on Tuesday said it will double the number of these teams, called Border Enforcement Security Task Forces.
Another challenge facing the initiative is that agents must work under what critics say are outdated guidelines for joint investigations on guns that were written in 1978. Guidelines for joint investigations into money laundering and narcotics trafficking date to 1990 and 1994, respectively.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has policed interagency turf wars for years, said investigations into such pressing problems should not be regulated by such outdated rules.
"All of these people work for the federal taxpayer," he said. "When are they going to put the taxpayer's interest at heart and cooperate and get the most bang for the buck?"
Department of Homeland Security officials have been especially vexed by the guidelines on narcotics investigations. Under the law, such investigations are primarily the turf of the DEA, even though Homeland Security agents make the vast majority of drug arrests at the border.
The guidelines limit to about 1,500 the number of investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of Homeland Security, who can work on drug cases across the country. Julie Myers Wood, who was Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief until November, said the rules are so outdated that agents have "their hands tied behind their backs."
Homeland Security pushed to expand its authority for drug cases in 2007 and 2008, according to Ms. Myers Wood and other former department officials. But the effort met resistance from DEA. Officials from the DEA said they offered to lift the cap in return for more intelligence-sharing, but were rebuffed.