By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, March 25 (Reuters) - A plan by President Barack Obama to send more federal agents to the Mexican border is inadequate to control growing drug violence in the two countries, an influential U.S. senator said on Wednesday, and he said he would seek $385 million more from Congress.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he would try to quickly pass funding to hire 1,600 more Customs and Border Patrol agents and extra immigration officers, build up law enforcement centers and fight human trafficking.
On Tuesday the Obama administration outlined plans to redeploy more than 500 federal agents to border posts and the Mexican interior and redirect $200 million to combat smuggling of illegal drugs, money and weapons.
"I don’t think it’s enough," Lieberman said at a hearing of his committee. "The danger here is clear and present. It threatens to get worse."
U.S. leaders are worried that drug wars that killed 6,000 in Mexico last year will spill across the border, while Mexico is alarmed that U.S. guns are fueling the wars, including turf battles over drug smuggling routes. Mexican cartels are believed to operate in at least 230 U.S. cities.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Mexico on Wednesday to discuss the problem, as well as other issues affecting relations between the neighbors. [ID:nN25433498V]
Government officials said Obama’s plans were sufficient for now, but acknowledged the issue could be revisited in Obama’s updated budget request next month for the 2010 fiscal year.
Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said among the agents heading south were 100 from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms plus 37 new agents still to be hired. They would be sent to the border for between three and six months.
"We’ll assess the situation and see at the end of that short-term period how to respond. As to the longer term picture, we are looking at the FY ‘10 budget and considering this issue quite centrally in our thinking."
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told the committee U.S. payouts would speed up under the so-called Merida Initiative to assist Mexico’s law enforcement and court systems in the drug fight.
About $700 million has been approved by Congress for the first two years of the three-year, $1.4 billion program, but money has been slow to reach Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the hearing it would probably take weeks to complete a contingency plan for sending U.S. National Guard troops at border areas. The plan would be triggered in case of a widespread outbreak of cartel-related violence inside the United States. (Editing by David Storey)