Upon entering office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon unleashed federal police and the military on Mexican border towns to help local law enforcement stop Mexico's powerful drug cartels from moving an estimated $50 billion per year in drugs and illicit goods across the border. Since then, more than 24,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence, according to government records. Yet the power of the cartels is far from broken.
"Calderon launched into a fight without knowing the enemy and only the Mexican people have paid the debt of his pride," said Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a Mexican journalist for the daily El Diario who now lives in El Paso and is seeking political asylum in the U.S.
During Calderon's state visit to the White House last week, Obama heralded the Mexican president's fight against the drug cartels and promised to be "a full and committed partner."
Yet many analysts on either side of the border have expressed concerns that Mexico's militarized approach masks a deeper inability to address the problem. "The [Mexican] power structure has not committed itself to combat drug-trafficking," George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary and the author of "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" said in an e-mail. As a result, he predicted, "we will see more and more American military and law-enforcement units dispatched to the border."
"It is interesting that the first concrete policy response after Calderon's visit is an act of a military nature," said John Ackermann, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a columnist for the left-wing daily La Jornada newspaper. "This represents the hyper-militarization of this problem, and a clear effort to raise the walls instead of building bridges between the two countries. From a Mexican perspective, this is not to be taken lightly."
The 1,200 troops will quadruple the presence of the National Guard on the border, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said. "It will also help build on and complement the strong security partnership with Mexico on display during last week's state visit," said an administration official unauthorized to speak to the press.
The National Guard will provide support to law enforcement officers already working along the border by helping observe and monitor traffic between official crossing points, and help analyze trafficking patterns in hopes of intercepting illegal drug shipments. Under the Posse Comitatus Act, a law from the post-Reconstruction era, the National Guard doesn't have the power to make arrests.
Arizona Sen. John McCain on Tuesday told Fox News that 1,200 National Guard troops is "not nearly enough" and pressed on with his bill to dispatch 6,000 troops to the border.
Obama's announcement did get some support among Mexican analysts. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor, economist and U.N. adviser who teaches at the Mexico City-based Autonomous Institute of Technology, called the move a political gesture that shows the Obama administration's commitment to "a more comprehensive approach" to tackling organized crime activity at the border.
"Everyone agrees in Washington that you need a much more comprehensive approach to facing organized crime than was taken by President Bush. That the U.S. was willing to admit that improvements had to be made on the American side to some degree brought goodwill within the bilateral meetings last week," Buscaglia said in a telephone interview from Washington. "This could be interpreted as a first step on the U.S. side in order to contain the tsunami of violence that is basically occurring on the border."
Monday's announcement was only the latest move in a ramping up of U.S. military presence on the border. Last year, the White House pledged $700 million to send hundreds of federal agents to the border and buy surveillance aircraft for the Mexican navy. In 2006, then-President George W. Bush dispatched thousands of troops to support the federal Border Patrol. After the Bush plan ended, a much smaller number of National Guard troops still remained at the border, helping federal and state officers with communications and anti-drug efforts. There are currently 340 troops scattered along the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Mexico's foreign ministry welcomed Obama's announcement. The reinforcement on the border "should translate into the channeling of additional resources to improve efforts to prevent the illegal trafficking of weapons and money into Mexico, which gives organized crime firepower and the ability to corrupt," it said in a statement.
The president's office added it was "confident" the troops would not carry out immigration enforcement. In last week's meeting with Obama, Calderon reiterated his "firm condemnation" of the Arizona law allowing local law enforcement officials to ask anyone they stop on other grounds to provide residency papers if they suspect they are in the country illegally.