The Obama administration is bringing the drug war home by making the southwest border the frontline of the government’s international counternarcotics operations.
Over the past two years, the administration has escalated its own assessments about security and public safety threats along the border. These threat assessments mirror those made by many border politicians and sheriffs, mainly Republicans, who charge that the administration is not doing enough to “secure the border.” At the same time, however, the administration insists that the border is “more secure than ever” – an assessment that outrages border security hawks.
On the occasion of the new National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy in the Arizona border town of Nogales, administration officials were once again caught in this border security paradox of their own making. Escalated threat assessments came side by side with assurances that the border was secure.
In a show of its commitment to border security, the administration brought together the top officials of the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which produced the new border counternarcotics strategy.
Alarming Threat Assessments and “Unprecedented” Response
In the press release announcing the new strategy, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an alarming view of border security, cartel penetration, and spillover violence. “Drug trafficking cartels spread violence and lawlessness throughout our border region and reach into all of our communities, large and small,” said Holder.
Speaking in Nogales, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also painted a frightening picture of security threats at the border – not only from the drug cartels but also from their “links to terrorism.”
“Disrupting the flow of illegal drugs across our borders is critical to our nation’s safety and security,” said Napolitano, adding that through this new strategy the administration will “interdict drug traffickers and disrupt their links to terrorism and organized crime.”
Joining Napolitano were other senior administration officials, including Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Alan Bersin, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and DHS Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement Director Grayling Williams.
The White House echoed the heightened threat assessments of the federal agencies, commending ONDCP’s new counternarcotics strategy for the border, saying that “drug trafficking across the Southwest border remains an acute threat to the security of the United States.”
Officials claim that the border counternarcotics strategy is a key component of administration’s “unprecedented efforts to enhance security along the Southwest border.”
A common theme running the counterdrug strategy is the federal government’s commitment to collaboration with the Mexican government and with local and state law enforcement. They boast that both the binational and federal/local counternarcotics cooperation initiatives outlined in the strategy statement are “unprecedented.”
Also without precedent, say administration officials, is the administration’s deployment of personnel and resources to the border under the Southwest Border Initiative, which was announced by DHS in March 2009. The DHS press release states that the administration “has deployed unprecedented amount of personnel, technology, and resources along the Southwest border.”
The Obama administration has adopted the terms “transnational criminal organizations” (TCOs) and “transnational threats” when describing the national security implications of crossborder drug flows. The ONDCP introduces its new border strategy with an August 13, 2010 statement by President Obama:
[M]y administration has dedicated unprecedented resources and personnel to combating the transnational criminal organizations that traffic in drugs, weapons, and money, and smuggle people across the border with Mexico.
While discarding the term “drug war” used by previous administrations dating back to the Nixon White House, the administration’s routine labeling of most illegal border crossings as transnational threats and the TCOs underscores its apparent conviction that illegal drugs and other illegal traffic from Mexico do indeed constitute an “acute threat” to U.S. national security.
But it doesn’t explain how exactly our national security is threatened.
In keeping with this threat assessment of illegal border crossings, DHS in September 2009 created a new multiagency counternarcotics initiative called the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats. The new border strategy points to ACTT as an example of the seriousness of its border security commitment in Arizona, where the first multiagency alliance directed by the Border Patrol is based.
Increased Military Participation in Border Security
Another salient feature of the 2011 strategy is the increased tapping of the Defense Department for border security. DOD serves as a partner in DHS, DOJ, and ONDCP border counternarcotics operations to meet most the strategic goals. One indication of the increased role of the DOD in border security is the strategy statement’s mentioning of DOD 74 times in the document.
Most of the military’s involvement in border security comes from the U.S. Northern Command, which among other things provides training and support to the DHS multiagency drug taskforces BEST and ACTT. According to ONDCP:
The U.S. Northern Command, its subordinate organization Joint Task Force-North (JTF North), and the National Guard provide the primary vehicles through which DOD supports law enforcement counternarcotics efforts within the United States and in cooperation with the Government of Mexico.
DHS and DOD have previously shared the expense of National Guard deployment. But following congressional rejection of presidential request for increased DHS funding, the administration switched the entire National Guard border security costs to the Pentagon.
(Next: Counternarcotics Strategy's Bow to Border Security Hawks)