Stateline Story

Mexico Violence Sparks State Action

Click here to read a Q&A about the violence in Mexico

(Updated 2 p.m. EDT, March 26, 2009)

While Mexico's raging drug war looms as the Obama administration's next big foreign policy battleground, states on the front line are taking steps to combat the violence already spilling into their back yards.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) have asked President Obama to send more federal muscle to the border. Brewer has asked for an increase of 250 specialized anti-drug agents, and Perry requested 1,000 National Guard troops.

At the same time, several state attorneys general are mounting their own efforts, including training Mexican law enforcement officials on how to stop the criminal cartels, while also tracking and blocking the flow of drug money.

Violence in Mexico has risen dramatically since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared open war against drug traffickers and organized crime. Fighting among the powerful drug cartels and police claimed the lives of about 6,300 people in 2008 and more than 1,000 so far this year, Mexican authorities estimate.

The killings are taking place mostly in Northern Mexican cities, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales and Ciudad Juarez-cities within driving distance of the United States.

More than 230 cities in at least 45 U.S. states, as far removed from Mexico as Alaska and Hawaii, have reported evidence of Mexican drug-trafficking in their areas since 2006, according to a recent assessment by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an agency under the U.S. Justice Department. Killings, kidnappings and home invasions have been linked to the presence of Mexican drug rings throughout the United States, according to the assessment.

"There's no real reason, in terms of (the traffickers') domination of various trade routes, that they don't come into the United States with the same level of violence they're using in Mexico," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D) told Stateline.org this month. Arizona law enforcement has reported a surge in spillover violence, especially in Phoenix.

On Tuesday (March 24), the Obama administration announced a new plan to help Mexican law enforcement squelch drug violence. The president called for significant increases in the number of analysts, border agents, X-ray and surveillance tools and dogs along the border. Congress has appropriated $700 million to help Mexican law enforcers since last year.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano-the former governor of Arizona-will meet with Perry to discuss the possibility of sending National Guard troops, among other issues. The meeting, originally scheduled for today (March 26), has been postponed due to bad weather.

"While we appreciate the additional investigative resources, what we really need are more border patrol agents and officers at the bridges to conduct increased northbound and southbound inspections, as well as additional funding for local law enforcement along the border to deny Mexican drug cartels access to the United States," Perry said in a statement immediately after Obama's press conference.

Arizona's Goddard has focused on using new technology to block the flow of funds to organized criminal cartels. Efforts to track "blood wires," money transfers used to pay human smugglers on both sides of the border, have been credited with moving millions of black market dollars out of Arizona. In December, Goddard's office targeted a drug-smuggling cartel, a human-trafficking ring and a violent urban street gang that resulted in 188 people being indicted and dozens of violent criminals taken off the streets.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) and Perry have asked the state to designate as much as $135 million to develop new technology, increase manpower and fight escalating crime.

The Conference of Western Attorneys General, which includes 15 Western states and three Pacific territories, led efforts to form the U.S.-Mexico Alliance Partnership , an organization devoted to strengthening and promoting collaboration among state attorneys general from both countries.

As fostered by the partnership, at least seven states-Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington-plan to conduct workshops and training exercises over the next three years with investigators, prosecutors and judges from Mexico to help them win convictions in the drug war. Some of the workshops already have begun.

Funded mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the workshops pack a semester's worth of legal training into about five days. Mexican prosecutors and investigators are offered temporary housing in the United States, bilingual educational materials and one-on-one instruction from legal experts.

Workshop organizers considered the faster and cheaper route of sending law enforcement officials to conduct training in Mexico, but decided against it.

"As Americans, we don't feel like it's the kind of place where we could guarantee their safety. It means the training process goes a lot slower and is a lot more expensive," said Karen White, the Western attorney general group's executive director.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden (R) praised the training efforts.

Wasden said he was asked by a Mexican attendee at an early training conference in 2006, "Do you let your prosecutors wear bags over their heads in court so they can't be assassinated when they walk out?" This experience, he said, fueled his desire to assist Mexico's justice system.

"You will find people who are putting their lives on the line every single day in order to establish justice in Mexico. I have great admiration for them and I have felt like it is my duty, my responsibility, to stand with them for justice," Wasden said.

State legislation also has begun to target Mexican drug cartels.

In 2008, New Mexico lawmakers passed legislation aimed at criminalizing human trafficking between the United States and Mexico. The law attempts to squelch the trade of human beings, who are bartered along with drugs and weapons in the $15-million-to-$25-million illegal drug market, according to federal law enforcement.

Several other state legislatures, including Arizona, are now considering similar laws. B ut some say more needs to be done.

Meanwhile, federal officials are calling for increased efforts by states in fighting Mexican drug violence. Eric Holder, the new U.S. attorney general, told dozens of state attorneys general at a meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month that states could no longer ignore the threat of Mexican drug violence.

"We share more than just a common border with our neighbor from the South. I think, in a lot of ways, their fate is linked to ours. We are naïve to think that we can restrict those problems involving those narco-traffickers to south of the Rio Grande," said Holder, who will travel to Mexico for his first foreign visit next month.

Napolitano has been reluctant to classify all recent U.S. drug violence as a "spillover" from Mexico. Large-scale organized cartel violence has yet to take hold in the United States, she said, but she also has noted the role of the states.

"Law enforcement agencies at the state, local, and tribal level have long fought border violence," she said during the March 24 news conference. "They have deep operational knowledge of the border region. Confronting a multifaceted threat like border violence means federal agencies must constantly collaborate with our state and local partners, sharing resources and information."