March 13, 2009

House panel asks DHS for solutions to U.S.-Mexican border violence

By Diana Murray Watts
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security has not been able to handle the violence stemming from drug cartels in Mexico, members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security told four high-level agency officials Tuesday.

Committee members asked the officials many questions, but got few specific replies.

“What are you doing as law enforcement? And what is your plan to do that this year?” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., asked during the contentious hearing.

Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., said the United States has a “key role” in border violence because of the “huge demand” for illegal drugs and as a source of weapons.

“We are part of the problem. We have an expensive appetite for drugs,” Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, D-Texas, said.

The U.S. State Department recently updated its travel alert for Mexico. Pointing out that millions of Americans visit the country safely each year, it cautioned travelers about increased violence, especially near the border.

Price said 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year and more than 1,000 in January alone.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said he wanted to know if it is true that “ninety-nine percent of the people arrested in the Tucson sector are never prosecuted, just arrested, but released the same day.”

David Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, limited his reply to: “It is the most challenging sector.”

Nonetheless, committee members said they were looking for solutions.

“What do we need to do to help you get the job done?” Rodriguez asked, noting Mexico is Texas’ largest trade partner. “We need to have more dialogue with Mexico.”

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., agreed, saying, “It is time for our agencies to work together” because Mexico is not only “an enormous trading partner, a strategic partner” but also a place “where terrorists can gain entry to the U.S.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said the border problem is more of a challenge than the war in Afghanistan and that “it needs to be a war against money,” which drives the drug trade that threatens the security of young people on both sides of the border.

The hearing concluded with Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., asking Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report on each agency’s responsibilities, the kinds of weapons found in border areas and which agency should deal with each problem.

In addition to Aguilar, Mark Koumans, deputy assistant Homeland Security secretary for international affairs; Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and Marcy Forman, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Investigations; testified.

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