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Monday, July 4, 2011

Little New in Drug War on the Border


The Department of Homeland Security has a new name for illegal immigrants and illegal drugs – “transnational threats.”

Over the past two years DHS has launched a new initiative to secure the southwestern border against what it calls transnational crime and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). Thus far, however, DHS has little to show for its “intelligence-driven” operations targeting Mexican TCOs besides the usual suspects of border enforcement – illegal immigrants and thousands of pounds of marijuana.

The Obama administration, eager to demonstrate its commitment to “securing the border,” in March 2009 launched the Southwest Secure Border Initiative, which deployed additional DHS and Justice Department personnel and resources to the border.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano explicitly tied the new border security initiative to Mexico’s drug war, noting the initiative’s two objectives:

First, we are going to do everything we can to prevent the violence in Mexico from spilling over across the border.  And second, we will do all in our power to help President Calderón crack down on these drug cartels in Mexico.

The border conceived as a defensive line against drug flows from Mexico is nothing new. The counternarcotics operations launched by the Obama administration along the southwestern border are best viewed less as new initiatives and more as new names for the same old law-enforcement responses to the illegal drug market.

Underscoring the persistent and chronic nature of this challenge to border control, they are just the latest in a long series of drug war operations.

Counternarcotics and other border operations have since 9/11 been described as part of a security strategy to protect the homeland – with names such as the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) and the Border Enforcement Security Teams (BEST).

Yet these new initiatives are mostly extension of other similar initiatives that date back to the early 1990s, when as part of the crackdown on crime and drugs, the federal government launched an array of counternarcotics programs along the border.

A Little Drug War History on the Border

In 1990,  the federal government created the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) taskforces, with the four southwestern states designated as a special regional HIDTA, with each state having its own sub-HIDTA. These HIDTAs still exist, having grown from original five HIDTAs in 1990 to 32 designated high-trafficking areas today.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched its own Southwest Border Initiative (SWBI) in 1994. Describing the SWBI initiative, DEA described the new “threat” from Mexican drug trafficking organizations:

SWBI is a cooperative effort by federal law enforcement agencies to combat the substantial threat posed by Mexico-based trafficking groups operating along the Southwest Border. These groups are transporting multi-ton shipments of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. They are also hired by trafficking groups from Colombia to transport equally huge amounts of cocaine into the United States.

That threat has only worsened, as the Mexican DTOs have taken over operations formerly controlled by the Colombian cartels, which have been decimated by combined U.S. and Colombian military counternarcotics and counterinsurgency programs. While the once powerful Colombian cartels have dispersed, Colombia and other Andean countries continue to supply the U.S. and other global markets with cocaine products through new drug trafficking organizations and networks.

When assessing the magnitude of current transnational threats from Mexico, it is worth recalling DEA’s strategy in the late 1990s for confronting DTOs. The salient features were, like today:  multiagency taskforces, binational cooperation, and targeting cartel leadership.
The DEA asserted in the late 1990s:

The only way to successfully attack any organized crime syndicate is to build strong cases against its leadership and their command and control functions. With the assistance of foreign governments, the long-term incarceration of those in leadership positions typically leaves entire organizations in disarray and renders them unable to conduct business in the United States.

It claimed that this “initiative, along with bi-national task forces in Monterrey, Juarez, and Tijuana, has provided a solid base for effective law enforcement operations aimed at major international drug traffickers.” 

It boasted that various binational and multiagency operations, such as Operation Zorro, Operation Reciprocity, and Operation Limelight, “helped to reduce corruption, violence, and alien smuggling associated with drug trafficking activities carried out along the border.”

More than a decade later, the DEA and other federal agencies regularly make similar claims, routinely pointing to the number of drug smugglers and “illegal aliens” arrested and hundreds or thousands of pounds of illegal drugs seized.

Despite two decades of reports of progress and mountains of drugs seized, the so-called “transnational threat” of illegal drugs persists -- with levels of U.S. drug consumption remaining persistently high while an ever-changing constellation of DTOs outside the U.S. and an ever changing array of sales networks inside the country service the market.

Rhetorical Escalation of Drug War

The Obama administration has rejected the “drug war” rhetoric of past administrations. But, in many ways, it has escalated the security framework used to justify the federal government’s domestic and foreign counternarcotics operations.

At home, this rhetorical escalation is evident in the southwest border operations of DHS, DOJ, and the White House’s own Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In 2007 ONDCP produced its first Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which the Obama administration updated in 2009.

In the 2009 strategy statement for the border, ONDCP stated: “Drug trafficking across the Southwest border remains an acute threat to our homeland security and one of the top drug control priorities for the United States.” Throughout the strategy document, the ONDCP categorizes illegal drugs as a “transnational threat” coming from “transnational criminal organizations.”

The Obama administration’s reconfiguration of the drug war as a transnational threat and a battle against TCOs is reflected not only in DOJ, White House, and DHS strategy statements but also in creation of new initiatives, such as the

Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT).  Established in September 2009, ACTT is an Arizona-based DHS initiative that boasts of its multiagency capacity and its binational ties.

Yet, in its nearly two years of “intelligence-driven” operations, ACTT can’t point to any blows against TCOs or any reduction in the transnational threat. That’s not surprising, though, considering that there is little new about ACTT except its name. ACTT points to the same measures of success traditionally used by the Border Patrol – the usual litany of numbers of immigrants arrested and quantity of drugs (overwhelmingly marijuana) seized.

(Next: Old Methods Dressed in New Transnational Threat Rhetoric)

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