ICE Director: U.S.-Mexico Border Is Secure As It Has Been in 20 Years

By Edwin Mora | March 3, 2011 | 5:33 AM EST

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.

( -- When asked if it was necessary to seal the southwest border to combat transnational drug gangs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton did not directly answer but said the border is more secure now than in the last 20 years and that crime is part of life in the United States.

Morton spoke with at a press briefing in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday about ICE’s Project Southern Tempest. Morton described the project as the “largest ever” ICE-led operation aimed at targeting street gangs that are affiliated with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in 168 U.S. cities.

At the briefing, asked Morton, “According to the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican DTOs pose the greatest organized crime threat to the U.S. and they are working with U.S.-based gangs in about 2,500 cities. Border Patrol has said that less than 50 percent of the southwest border is under control. Is it possible to solve the transnational gang problem without first securing the southwest border?”

Morton answered, “With regard to the border, there’s a difference between the border being sealed and the border being secure: There has never been a higher number of Border Patrol agents, a higher number of ICE agents, a higher number of ICE removals along the border. The border is as secure as I’ve ever seen it in 20 years in law enforcement.

“Are we going to be able to eliminate every instance of crime in the United States? No,” said Morton. “That’s why we have police departments. That’s why we have prosecutors. That’s why we have federal law enforcement agencies like ICE. Crime is a part of life here in the United States and other countries. The beauty of our country is we have a very strong system of the rule of law. We have a wonderful country.”

“I challenge you to find another country in which the sense of law and order is greater,” Morton said.

In answering’s question, Morton acknowledged that a link exists between violent street gangs in the United States and foreign drug trafficking groups, especially those from Mexico.

“The whole purpose of this effort [Project Southern Tempest] was to target violent street gangs that have a relationship with cartels, particularly those in Mexico, but anywhere else,” Morton told “That was the purpose of this operation, was recognizing as the Justice Department pointed out in 2010, that these links exist and we’re using that information to go out and better target our efforts, so that we’re not just going after violent street gangs, we’re going after violent street gangs that are engaged in drug-trafficking in coordination with large drug-trafficking organizations,” he said.

In his prepared remarks, Morton acknowledged that U.S.-based drug gangs are working with Mexican DTOs.

Mexican federal police guard a U.S. Embassy vehicle after it came under attack by unknown gunmen on Highway 57 between Mexico City and Monterrey, near the town of Santa Maria Del Rio, on Tuesday Feb. 15, 2011. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed and another wounded in the attack. (AP Photo/Pulso Diario de San Luis-Teodoro Blanco Vazquez)

Morton said that Project Southern Tempest yielded the arrest of 678 gang members and associates from 133 various gangs, 13 of which were directly affiliated with Mexican drug traffickers.

Almost half of those arrested “were members or associates of gangs with ties to” drug-trafficking organizations, said the ICE director.  The arrests, according to Morton, included Mexican nationals with criminal convictions such as illegal re-entry into the United States.

The 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment compiled by the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center, stated, “Mexican DTOs increased their cooperation with U.S.-based street and prison gangs to distribute drugs.”

“In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities,” read the report.

The assessment noted that there about 1 million active gang members in the United States.

“Since 2001, many gangs have advanced beyond their traditional role as local retail drug distributors in large cities to become more organized, adaptable, deliberate, and influential in large-scale drug trafficking,” stated the report.

The National Drug Threat Assessment for 2009 designated Mexican drug-trafficking cartels “the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.”

Border Patrol, a unit of the Custom and Border Protection (CBP) agency, told and   the Government Accountability Office that less than half of the southwest border is under the U.S. government’s control.

The CBP and ICE are both components of the Department of Homeland Security.