Obama’s Cartel Trust Busters

On a whirl-wind tour of the Southwest late last week, senior members of the Obama administration laid out the White House’s strategy for border security, narcotics control, and immigration reform. And contrary to the expectations of some border residents and advocates who were betting on a new approach last January, the new administration’s strategic policy thrust mainly follows and even expands on the course long pursued by previous Democratic and Republican administrations. A solid alliance with the Calderon administration in Mexico City is a key component of the Obama border policy.

Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) is mobilizing
to pressure the president in keeping to his campaign
pledge of a pathway for legalization of undocumented
residents. Photo: fairimmigration.wordpress.com.

During the Albuquerque portion of the trip, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano swore in a new 21-member Homeland Security Advisory Council Southwest Border Task Force. The purpose of the new body, Napolitano said in a statement, will be to "present me with concrete recommendations to address the complex challenges we face in this region."

Chairing the task force is former Director of Central Intelligence and FBI Director William Webster. Appointed members include James Jones, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and a CEO of Mannatt Jones Global Strategies; Jeffrey Davidow, also former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and president of the Institute of the Americas; Maria Luisa Connell, CEO of Border Trade Alliance and a former employee of the National Federation of Merchants of Colombia; and Victor Flores of the Arizona Public Service utility company. Additional members include the chairman of Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, the mayors of San Diego and El Paso, private sector representatives, and law enforcement officials, among others.

The generous appointment of law enforcement and private sector representatives to top advisory positions reflects the Obama administration’s goal of relying on technology to tighten up border security while facilitating the flow of commerce between Mexico and the United States, a tricky proposition given the long lines of traffic and pedestrians that have been jamming some U.S. ports of entry in recent months.

With the exception of the National Council of La Raza Board Chair Andrea Bazan, no individuals from the human rights, civil liberties, labor, environmental, or immigrant advocacy fields were appointed to the new advisory group. Physician Evelyn M. Rodriguez, who once worked on pharmaceutical drug safety at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will serve on the task force, as will Robert Ross, the head of the California Endowment health foundation.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was not present at the Albuquerque swearing-in ceremony for the new task force. Richardson’s office later told a New Mexico online news service that the governor had prior commitments to attend a U.S. Border Patrol ceremony and a boating officer award event.

The Devil is in the Details

On the eve of the Arizona and New Mexico trip, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined her department’s four priorities in a presentation at the Aspen Institute. In order of importance, Napolitano listed anti-terrorism, border security, immigration law enforcement, and natural disaster response.

In terms of immigration law enforcement, Napolitano told her audience that the Department of Homeland Security would request more funding for the e-Verify computer system that checks the residency status of job applicants.

On their tour, Napolitano and other administration officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, detailed other planned administration actions. Increased financial assistance to law enforcement agencies, police checks of U.S. citizens headed to Mexico, countering money laundering, and stepping up prosecutions of drug traffickers are major elements of the White House border strategy.

Scanners, dog teams, and weight scales to detect cash-laden or contraband-laden vehicles will be put to greater use on the border. According to Napolitano, border crime-fighting strategies will be applied to communities within the interior of the United States as well.

In Albuquerque, Napolitano stressed the importance of controversial "fusion" centers for the success of the U.S. endeavor. A kind of central clearinghouse for intelligence and law enforcement information, the centers were criticized in a 2008 report by the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly acting as dry, bottomless fishing holes for police agencies casting a wide net of suspicion.

Even before the ink on headlines dried, some critics lashed out against the White House’s drug war strategy.

"The new plan simply calls for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said Aaron Houston of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that claims 26,000 members. Advocating that marijuana be regulated like alcohol, Houston contended that any policy initiative relegating cannabis use to the control of criminal organizations is "nothing but a full-employment plan for professional drug warriors and cartel bosses alike …"

The Obama administration’s prioritization of border security over immediate immigration reform was spelled out in a June 4 interview of Border Czar Alan Bersin with journalist and KUNM radio News Director Jim Williams in Albuquerque.

Bersin laid out three pre-conditions for comprehensive immigration reform, including border enforcement, workplace enforcement, and "interior" enforcement directed at 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The border czar defined interior enforcement as deporting undocumented persons who commit crimes in this country.

"They need to be identified, arrested, and removed from this country," Bersin told Williams. For immigration reform to be politically palpable, Bersin argued, the current focus had to be on law enforcement. "It’s enforcement, enforcement, enforcement that has to take place for those conditions to exist," Bersin said.

Securing the border before reforming immigration policy was a policy position staked out by Republican presidential candidate John McCain during last year’s campaign.

In the KUNM interview, Williams asked Bersin about the issue of corruption within the ranks of the Mexican Army, especially the recent arrests of 12 active-duty Mexican soldiers who were accused of working for the Zetas drug gang in Aguascalientes.

While acknowledging that corruption had "popped up" in the Mexican military, Bersin differentiated the armed forces from local and state police forces and the judiciary. Mexico’s military, he said, is "the lever on which President Calderon is attempting this historic transformation of Mexico, and it is one in which we are heavily invested and one in which we see our own national security implicated."

Though recognizing a recent "spike" in violence, Bersin credited the deployment of the Mexican Army for significantly reducing violence in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

Press reports showed a short-lived reduction in violence after the Mexican Army was first deployed in Ciudad Juarez in early 2008, but an unprecedented increase in the months afterward. A similar pattern occurred this year, when extra troops were sent in to bolster the anti-drug campaign at the end of February. In recent weeks, however, violence has reached almost unimaginable levels in the embattled border city. On June 5, for example, at least 13 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez.

"Lead Rain Alert!" headlined the Lapolaka Internet news site.

On the day Bersin was in Albuquerque, Mexican soldiers were accused of beating or roughing up a group of journalists in Ciudad Juarez. The journalists were attempting to photograph the aftermath of a traffic accident involving soldiers. Vehicular mishaps caused by soldiers or federal police flying through the streets have received growing media attention in the tense border city.

Ciudad Juarez’s El Diario newspaper protested the attack on the journalists in an open letter to President Felipe Calderon. Adrian Ventura Lares, president of the Society of Journalists and Communicators, characterized the incident as an assault on freedom of expression. "Juarez society is tired of the abuses that are happening because of the military’s illegal searches and transgressions of fundamental principles," Ventura said. "We are not in a state of siege and the freedom to inform exists."

Washington’s full-tilt backing of the Mexican military runs the risk of alienating growing sectors of Mexican society that want the army back in its barracks. Ignoring a plea from dozens of prominent Mexican human rights organizations, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to grant the Mexican government an extra $470 million in anti-drug assistance, including Blackhawk helicopters.

In Ciudad Juarez alone, more than 200 human rights complaints against the Mexican Army have been filed with the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission since last year. Additionally, the number of complaints against the army received by a special office of the Ciudad Juarez municipal government grew from 109 in early April to nearly 550 by the first week of June.

The complaints—some of which have been challenged by the army—allege numerous instances of soldiers illegally searching homes and mistreating residents. Serious allegations of murder, torture, and robbery have also been made.

Reportedly, the military has opened internal investigations of 162 cases for the period running from March 2008 to mid-April 2009. Responding to an inquiry from El Diario newspaper, Mexican General Cruz Isaac Munoz Navarro was quoted as saying that no criminal sanctions have been levied against military personnel because of the ongoing nature of investigations.

On the U.S. side of the border, meanwhile, Bersin contended drug cartel violence was not significantly spilling into this country as claimed by some recent news headlines. He said immigrant-smuggler violence in places like Arizona was characteristic of long-standing border crime as opposed to cartel-fanned violence. In remarks to the Albuquerque Journal, Bersin rejected proposals for decriminalizing drug use. Such a policy, he said, would be tantamount to "throwing up your hands."

Overall, the Obama-Calderon anti-drug strategy aims at busting up several large crime organizations into smaller, more manageable ones, according to Bersin. The border czar praised a "sea change" in the willingness of both governments to take off the gloves and truly fight the drug war.

Fumbling the Immigration Hot Potato?

With the immigration reform issue creeping back onto the agenda again, the Obama administration’s emphasis on toughened border security is now the controlling variable in the timing and the character of any reform package that might emerge.

At the grassroots level, the newly-formed Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) is mobilizing in communities across the United States to pressure the president in keeping to his campaign pledge of a pathway for legalization of undocumented residents.

"I want to tell our congressional leaders that New Mexico’s immigrant families need some relief," said Mabel Serrano, a student member of the Somos un Pueblo organization of New Mexico. "We work side by side with U.S. citizens. We go to school together. We go to church together."

Washington-based Latino rights and immigrant advocacy groups are optimistic that the Democrat-controlled Congress and White House will pass favorable legislation. They point to recent Senate hearings and the planned June 17 summit between President Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders as positive signs that action is forthcoming.

How soon action will be taken is the million-dollar question. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week that immigration reform would be the third biggest legislative priority for 2009, preceded by two other thorny and time-consuming issues—health care and energy policy.

Meanwhile, details of a possible immigration reform package are beginning to appear in the press. Among the measures under consideration on Capitol Hill are proposals to extend guest-worker programs from agriculture to all economic sectors.

Some analysts and observers are skeptical the Obama White House will be able to muster up an immigration reform. Americas Policy analyst Tom Barry, for example, recently wrote that the emerging border security and immigration enforcement commitments "have come without any persuasive demonstration by the administration or Congress that they are firmly committed to immigration reform."

The new president, Barry conceded, has a difficult challenge "to lay out a persuasive case for a new immigration policy including legalization measures at a time of economic crisis and little principled resolve among congressional Democrats."

Calls for immigration reform were echoed at the June 5-6 encounter between Mexican and U.S. legislators in Seattle, Washington. Prior to the Seattle meeting, the vice-coordinator of the center-left PRD party in the Mexican Senate said that he held out a few hopes for a U.S. immigration reform but did not expect much to happen.

"I know how negative the gringos are," said Senator Silvano Aureoles Conejo, "and that they don’t want to go to the root of the problem."