US border plan puts emphasis on drug prevention

July 7, 2011 - 6:29 PM

NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) — The government's updated security plan for the U.S.-Mexico border keeps its focus on trying to stop drug and gun smuggling but contains an added emphasis on preventing and treating drug use in communities along the border.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said Thursday that efforts over the past two years have rightly focused on border security, but he believes there has to be a holistic approach that confronts America's demand for illegal drugs.

"I spent 37 years in law enforcement, and my colleagues say you can't arrest your way out of this drug problem," said Kerlikowske, who along with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano unveiled the update in the Arizona border city of Nogales, using the local Border Patrol station as their backdrop.

Arizona is one of the country's busiest hubs for marijuana smuggling. The areas in and around the city of Nogales have been popular crossing points for smugglers. Dozens of border tunnels have been discovered in Nogales since the mid-1990s. The government has increased its number of agents there and added border fences.

The updated border security plan includes federal grants for efforts to prevent and treat drug use in border communities that bear the brunt of America's drug smuggling woes.

Asked whether the plan will be effective after 30 years of failed drugs strategies, Kerlikowske said the country has made strides, such as lower drug use, particularly cocaine use. "There is no one enterprise that owns this problem," Kerlikowske said.

Sounding a theme repeated by federal officials over the last 18 months or so, Napolitano said violent crime in American communities along the border is flat, seizures of drugs and drug money are up and illegal immigration is down.

"The numbers that need to go up are going up, and the numbers that need to go down are really going down," Napolitano said, noting that the Border Patrol's ranks and technology along the border have grown significantly in the past few years.

Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu said the federal government isn't doing enough to secure the border and needs to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the international line, instead of the 1,200 troops who are already there. Babeu served as a National Guard commander along the border during a 2006 deployment near Yuma, Ariz.

Babeu, whose county doesn't include the border but is used by smugglers who bring drugs and illegal immigrants to Phoenix, joined federal and local officials in a closed-door discussion about the updated security plan earlier Thursday. He said the federal government is trying to lull Americans into a false sense of security, and he singled out statistics that show crime numbers are declining in border communities.

"Well, yes, they are," Babeu said. "In fact, they are down in Chicago. They are down in New York City. They are down in Los Angeles."