Saturday, September 10, 2011

Drug War to Transnational Combat in Arizona

The Obama administration is on the same page as the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission in viewing the Arizona-Sonora border as the frontline in fighting illegal drugs. But the war on drugs has evolved into what the Obama administration calls the combat against transnational organized crime.

No longer will you find the federal government pronouncing about drug war’s role in protecting U.S. national security.

Having dropped the drug war terminology and substituted concerns about transnational organized crime, the Obama administration, the Obama administration seems, at first glance, to have made a welcome shift in framing counternarcotics from military to law enforcement terms -- from war to crime, from national security to public safety.

Officially, there is no longer a “war on drugs.” But as White House’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime stays true to the militaristic spirit of the four-decades-long drug war. Interlaced throughout the strategy statement and the declarations of administration officials is the same military and conflict terminology such as “combat” and “transnational threats,” the same alarmist assessments that drug trafficking constitutes a threat to national security, and the same involvement of the U.S. military and national intelligence apparatus.

Except for the actual use of the term “war on drugs,” the jargon of domestic counternarcotics operations has, if anything, become more pervaded by military jargon, including the now common use by the Border Patrol of such military terms as “deconfliction,” “situational awareness,” “operational control,” “surges,” “forward operating bases,” “common operating picture,” and “defense-in-depth.”

The Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats represents one of the first institutional manifestations of the Obama administration’s reconfiguration of the drug war as a combat against transnational threats.
DHS describes ACTT as a “multiagency operation” involving more than 50 law enforcement agencies that aims to “deny, degrade, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle criminal organizations and their ability to operate” and to “engage communities to reduce their tolerance of illegal activity.”  

What makes ACTT distinctive, according to DHS, is that it undertakes “intelligence-driven operations” against transnational threats that are directed by a Unified Command comprising the leaders of the participating agencies.

ACTT has a clear drug war focus. In June 2011 the White House’s Office on National Drug Control Policy released its biannual National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which poses drug control policy as an integral part of U.S. national security strategy.

Although officially a DHS initiative, ONDCP also claims a role in deploying four counterdrug alliances along the southwestern border, beginning with the one targeting what DHS and ONDCP call the Arizona-Sonora drug corridor and following with three others, each with their own United Command, that will target the drug corridors into Southern California, New Mexico/West Texas, and Southeast Texas.

According to the counternarcotics strategy, ACTT is a counternarcotics “framework” in which “agencies should develop and maintain frameworks that address the coordination, integration, deconfliction, and synchronization of Federal, state, local, and tribal border security and law enforcement activities along the Southwest border.”

In Arizona ACTT’s Unified Command comprises ten officials from DEA, ICE, CBP, US Attorney’s Office, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Arizona HIDTA, and the Arizona border sheriffs. According to the Border Patrol, ACTT has all the counterdrug actors in Arizona “sitting around the same table and sharing information” to meet the “common goal.”

While visiting the Arizona border on Feb. 11, 2011, Alan Bersin, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), hailed the accomplishments of ACTT, pointing to -- as the top-listed achievement -- “the seizure of more than 1.6 million lbs. of marijuana,” along with relatively small amounts of cocaine and methamphetamines. Praising ACTT, the CBP commissioner declared: “We will force smuggling organizations out of their entrenched positions here in Arizona north of the border and south of the border with the help of Mexican law enforcement.”

Typical of the disconnect between ACTT’s reported accomplishments and the targeting of TCOs, Bersin did not attempt to explain how ACTT had in any way contributed to the dismantling of the transnational criminal organizations supposedly targeted by ACTT.

Also see related articles and policy reports:

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