AMU Homeland Security Immigration Intelligence Terrorism

Department of Justice Experts Testify on Violence, Drugs, Guns at the Southern Border

By Jenni Hesterman
On May 6th, Department of Justice leaders outlined their roles and strategies as related to combating drugs and gun trafficking at/around the U.S. border with Mexico to the House’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. The hearing’s title encapsulates the problem at hand: “Escalating Violence in Mexico and the Southwest Border as a Result of the Illicit Drug Trade”.

The opening statement by the Chairman, Congressman Smith (R-TX), contained some conventional wisdom such as the escalation in violence is due to the Mexican government’s crackdown on cartels in the country. However, he discussed the Mexican perspective on the problem: according to their government, 64% of drug related violence is concentrated in just 3 states in Mexico, where only 15% of their population lives. Also, the Mexican government points out the murder rate is Juarez is 6 times lower than Columbia’s murder rate in the 90s. Perhaps the underlying message was that Mexico considers this a serious problem, but not a crisis as the U.S. believes.
In his opening statement, Congressman Gohmert (R-TX) stated the Sinaloa cartel is now authorizing use of force to protect drug operations in the U.S. He also discussed that Forbes Magazine’s list of billionaires now includes Joaquin Guzman Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most wanted men in Mexico. He also emphasized that Cartel violence in Mexico goes hand-in-hand with demand and use in the U.S.
ATF’s representative William Hoover, Acting Deputy Director, expressed his agency’s concern over increasing use of explosives, such as grenades, in cartel violence. He discussed ATF’s Project Gunrunner which includes 148 ATF agents stationed along the border to investigate gun trafficking issues. He mentioned that over 100 extra ATF agents were just sent to Houston field division to support a push to stop the movement of guns across the border. Mr. Hoover also mentioned ATF’s role in EPIC – the El Paso Intelligence Center. EPIC was established in 1974 to address drug issues at and around the border. Led by the DEA, EPIC has a staff of 300 personnel and liaison officers from 15 agencies.
DEA’s representative, Anthony P. Placido, Assistant Administrator for Intelligence shared some interesting data about the drugs themselves. In 2008, estimated worldwide production of cocaine ranged between 901-1082 metric tons, with 528 metric tons seized, around 48%. Mexican specific data: 18% of heroin produced and 21% of marijuana produced was seized. Mr. Placido also discussed shifts in price and purity of cocaine. When scarcity occurs, there is a noticeable fluxuation in purity and traffickers add fillers such as sugar and lactose to the product. When drugs are scarce, the price goes up but purity drops – DEA witnessed a 35% drop in the purity of cocaine, a distinct indicator of decreased availability.
Congressman Poe (R-TX) mentioned a “turf battle” between federal agencies working border issues. He specifically asked the DEA rep if ICE should have more responsibility in drug investigations – the answer was that if ICE worked within the rules, they would welcome their assistance. Ms. Ayala, the ICE representative at the hearing, stated an increase of 95 agents to SW border, an increase in 50% of ICE attaché personnel, a quadrupling of border liaison officers, and an increase of 3 times the intelligence commitment to the border.
CW Jackson Lee (D-TX) addressed her legislation, H.R. 1900 – Border Security, Cooperation, and Act Now Drug War Prevention Act. This law would allow governors to declare emergencies and seek from DHS and DOJ emergency increase in border patrol, DEA, ATF agents and equipment. It also creates task force with ATF, DEA, and Border Patrol and monitors their liaising with local law enforcement.
When asked his thoughts on her legislation, the DEA rep responded this is a much larger problem than the border with cartel- related problems now spread throughout the U.S. He stated that a focused attack on the criminal organization itself vice geographically focused efforts is a better answer. He also mentioned that intra-cartel violence has always happened, however, there is a new and disturbing trend – cartels lashing out against the Mexican government. He cited concern in DOJ about their potential to also lash out against our government.
Some generally agreed upon issues in the hearing:
– In 2008, violence in the cartel fight for trafficking routes left over 6,000 dead, including 500 police and soldiers. More than 1,000 have already killed in early 2009.
– The violence is gruesome – it is meant to terrorize communities and force the Mexican government to abandon its efforts to shut down the cartels.
– There is kidnapping for ransom escalation within the U.S. and related to the cartels.
– Corruption is a problem in Mexico and continues to fuel their internal problems and prevent them from achieving their goals.
– Mexico needs to protect the border from guns and money heading south.
– Drugs and guns go hand-in-hand: firearms are used to protect routes, firearms are traded for drugs; firearms offered to raise cash.
– Bulk cash smuggling at the border must be addressed – cutting off cartel funding is critical.
The webcast of this hearing is available online.
(Note: the author’s article “Mexican Drug War Spilling Across the Border” is the cover story in the June/July issue of The Counter Terrorist Magazine)
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies and is a contributing editor for The Counter Terrorist Magazine. You may contact the author at

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