Texas makes emergency plans in case violence spills over from Mexico | News | Star-Telegram.com

Texas makes emergency plans in case violence spills over from Mexico
By DAVE MONTGOMERY
dmontgomery@star-telegram.com
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Federal police arrive to patrol Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, last week as part of a government effort to free Mexican citizens from a daily spectacle of assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings ordered by rival drug czars. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/MIGUEL TOVAR
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/MIGUEL TOVAR
Federal police arrive to patrol Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, last week as part of a government effort to free Mexican citizens from a daily spectacle of assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings ordered by rival drug czars. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/MIGUEL TOVAR




AUSTIN — The state and federal governments have prepared contingency plans to deal with spillover violence from across the border as Mexican troops clash with ruthless drug cartels terrorizing Mexico.

"Anything you can think of that’s happened in Mexico, we have to think could happen here," said Steve McCraw, Gov. Rick Perry’s director of homeland security. "We know what they’re capable of."

A crackdown by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has turned Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, into a war zone as federal troops battle feuding cartels.

Thousands of soldiers and agents have surged into the border city in the government’s latest effort to free Mexican citizens from a daily spectacle of assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings ordered by rival drug czars.

McCraw predicted that the violence in Mexico "will get worse before it gets better."

Mexico’s active-duty armed forces number more than 130,000 and are being aggressively used to combat the cartels. But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters last week that Mexico’s two largest drug cartels have fielded a combined army of 100,000 foot soldiers to battle not just government forces but also one another.

Potential threat

The state’s contingency plan was developed under the umbrella of Operation Border Star, a multiagency law enforcement offensive led by Perry’s homeland security office. The plan, which has not been released publicly, envisions scenarios of violence, such as kidnappings or a takeover by hit squads, with a corresponding response by law enforcement, McCraw said.

While declining to elaborate on specifics for security reasons, McCraw called it a "very aggressive plan to deal very quickly with all threats that might be posed."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also prepared contingency measures to respond to cross-border violence, agency spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said. Like the state plan, the federal response "contemplates a number of contingencies that could result from violence" in Mexico, Kudwa said.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, interviewed last week on PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, said the grisly murders and kidnappings that are signatures of the Mexican drug wars haven’t made their way north.

"But let’s be very, very clear," she said. "This is a very serious battle. It could spill over into the United States. If it does, we do have contingency plans to deal with it."

Fears of instability

A Defense Department study raising the possibility that the narco-violence could undermine the Mexican government has also prompted fears of a mass migration of refugees that would require a large-scale humanitarian response.

The U.S. Joint Forces Command, in a speculative assessment of global security threats, said Mexico and Pakistan "bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse."

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels," the report said. "How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.

"Any descent by . . . Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone," the report said.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Bill Clinton, said in a report last month that Mexico is "fighting for survival against narco-terrorism" and that the country’s worsening problems threaten U.S. security.

"In the next eight years, the violent collection of criminal drug cartels could overwhelm the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of northern Mexico," McCaffrey’s report said. "A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S. border."

Contingency plan

Perry and others disagree with the speculation that Mexico is on the verge of collapse, pointing out that the country is a robust trading partner and that the government is aggressively battling the cartels.

But state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said: "Talk of a collapse of the Mexican government is very, very premature and, at this point in time, unlikely. However, I think that for Texas to be responsible to its citizens, it has to consider a contingency plan were conditions to worsen in Mexico. There is no question that any type of upheaval in Mexico would lead to more people from Mexico coming across the border illegally in large numbers."

A state response being prepared by the governor’s office, he said, would include medical treatment, food, shelter and other assistance "for people that are fleeing their country out of concern for themselves or the lives of their families." The response would also likely deal with economic disruptions along the border, he said.

McCraw, interviewed last week, confirmed that the governor’s office has plans to deal with a migration surge resulting from "any calamity" but said there is no indication that Mexico is vulnerable to collapse. Planning for a migration influx, he said, is separate from the contingency plan for spillover violence.

"Do we plan for mass-migration scenarios?" he asked. "Of course.  . . .  But the scenarios could be a natural disaster, pandemic flu, serious problems in South America, Central America. The state of Texas prepares for all scenarios . . . for all hazards, all threats."

A look at the problem

Operation Border Star, which has evolved from three previous operations since 2005, is designed to dismantle smuggling and present a show of force all along Texas’ 1,254-mile border with Mexico.

Commanded from the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin, the operation includes DPS troopers, the Texas Rangers, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, local sheriffs and police, and other state and federal agencies. Over the past four years, Perry’s office says, serious crime along the border has dropped by 65 percent.

The Legislature authorized $110 million for Border Star in 2007, and Perry is asking for $135 million from the 2009 Legislature. Perry is also supporting legislation sponsored by Carona to crack down on transnational gangs operating on the Texas side of the border in collaboration with the cartels in Mexico.

The Mexican drug wars claimed more than 5,700 lives in Mexico in 2008, including 1,600 in Juarez, where the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are battling for supremacy. About a half-dozen cartels are rooted in Mexico, accounting for an estimated $27-billion-a-year business through the smuggling of drugs and human cargo.

In turn, McCraw says, bulk cash, weapons and stolen vehicles flow back into Mexico from the United States to fortify the illicit operations.

Violence on the Texas side of the border hasn’t risen to the level that would trigger full-scale use of the contingency plan, McCraw said.

But a shootout in Reynosa and protests on international bridges Feb. 17 sent Border Star command posts into a "hot loop" alert to escalate monitoring and intelligence activities before returning to normal 24 hours later, McCraw said.

This report includes material from The Monitor in McAllen.

Any type of upheaval in Mexico would lead to more people from Mexico coming across the border illegally in large numbers."

State Sen. John Carona,
R-Dallas

DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294