March 3, 2009 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Back to the Border for the National Guard?

Terrorists gave the police chief little choice. "Resign now," they said, "or we'll kill one policeman every other day until you do."

It was no idle threat. They'd killed five of his officers the week before.

The chief resigned.

Two days later, banners throughout the city announced plans to behead the mayor.

This scene wasn't played out Kabul or Baghdad or even Bogotá. It happened in Ciudad Juárez, a town that used to be called El Paso del Norte. The city sits on the US-Mexican border, right next to El Paso

The terrorists rampaging in Mexico today are members of drug cartels and transnational gangs. They are at war with the Mexican government, fighting to control the smuggling corridors that carry people, guns, money, and drugs into the United States.

It's a $25 billion per year business--and a dangerous one. The body count from Mexico's "drug wars" was somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 last year, and the pace of killing is up so far this year.

Increasingly, the violence threatens to spill over into the U.S. The "narco-banners" calling for the head of Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz also threatened to decapitate his relatives living in our country.

The activity threatens legitimate business, too. Juárez boasts more than 300 "maquiladoras" (factories), but employees living on the U.S. side are increasingly afraid to go to work. It's so bad, U.S. officials recently ferried to El Paso to confer with businessmen on both sides of the border.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón is trying to get control of the situation by sending in the troops. That move was necessary when it became clear the local police were both overwhelmed and corrupt.

Mexicans lost faith in local law enforcement long before the recent surge in violence. Surveys by Gullermo Zepeda, a researcher for a prominent Mexico City think tank, found only 19 percent of crimes in Mexico were reported.

Why? Because almost half believed the police would do nothing about it. And 20 percent feared they would be victimized by the police.

Now there is speculation that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will follow Calderón's lead and press President Obama to send the National Guard to the border.

That's nothing new for the Guard. President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in 2006 to help stem the surge in illegal border crossings. That mission, "Operation Jump Start," officially ended last July, when the feds successfully doubled our border patrol manpower to over 18,000.

While serving as governor of Arizona, Napolitano learned a lot about the rise in border violence. And she was a fan of Operation Jump Start. In 2007, she declared her own "state of emergency" and called up Guardsmen to work on Arizona's borders.

But would "Jump Start II" really be a savvy move? The answer depends on a lot of things, starting with a clear answer to the question: What is the mission?

Last time, the Guard fulfilled mostly support roles, freeing up Homeland Security officers to police the border. Since then, however, the border patrol has swelled its ranks. And the federal government already has a contingency plan in place to send troops to the border if there is a "crisis." If more law enforcement is needed at the border now, there are much better ways to beef that up than to simply call out the Guard.

Our state and local law enforcement agencies aren't beset by the corruption issues that plague their Mexican counterparts. They can and should play a vital role in policing border communities.

The biggest obstacle is that, right now, the narco-terrorists have them outmanned and outgunned.

What state and local officers need is support and financial resources. That would be a far better use for homeland security grants than buying more fire trucks.

Napolitano should also increase support for Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs) and initiatives like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287G program which promotes federal cooperation with state and local law enforcement.

One more thing: The administration should affirm its support of the Merida Initiative, a package of aid and support to help Mexico combat the cartels.

Cooperative initiatives like these are much more efficient and enduring countermeasures. Sending brigades of our already over-stretched military to the border would doubtless grab a few headlines, but it's a less-than optimum strategy for winning the long war on our border.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner