WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is finalizing plans to move federal agents, equipment and other resources to the border with Mexico to support Mexican President Felipe Calderon's campaign against violent drug cartels, according to U.S. security officials.
In Obama's first major domestic security initiative, administration officials are expected to announce as early as this week a crackdown on the supply of weapons and cash moving from the United States into Mexico that helps sustain that country's narco-traffickers, officials said.
The announcement sets the stage for Mexico City visits by three Cabinet members, beginning Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and followed next week by Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Napolitano, designated by Obama to convene a multiagency security plan for the border, said the government is preparing plans to send more agents and intensify its investigation and prosecution of cartel-related activity in the United States. In addition, she said, the government may expand efforts to trace the sources of guns that move from the United States into Mexico.
To combat the southbound flow of guns, ammunition and grenades at border checkpoints, the government may deploy new equipment, such as scales to weigh vehicles and automated license-plate readers linked to databases, as well as other surveillance technology, she said.
Government officials are discussing how to increase intelligence sharing and military cooperation with Mexico, following a visit there this month by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the administration could employ tools used to track terrorist financing to follow the flow of funds within the estimated $65 billion North American drug trade. An estimated $18 billion to $39 billion a year moves through wire transfers as well as cash smuggled into Mexico in planes and vehicles and by human "mules."
Obama, who plans to visit Mexico in mid April and has said he will have a "comprehensive policy" on border security in place within months, has elevated to the top of the agenda a subject that did not receive significant attention in the presidential campaign. His focus on Mexico follows a sharp increase in drug-related killings in Mexican cities along the border, prompting fears in the United States of destabilization in the populous neighbor.
Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Obama's security and foreign policy aides have spent the past two months reordering their priorities as "snowballing" concern in Congress pushed Mexico "to the front burner" alongside the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's efforts mark a shift from the homeland security priorities of the Bush administration, targeted mainly at the threat of Islamist terrorists overseas and illegal immigration at home. While the new president has vowed to maintain counterterrorism efforts, the addition of fighting Mexican drug trafficking as well as human smuggling networks represents a new emphasis.