March 11, 2009 / 8:04 PM / in 10 years

U.S. drug czar named as Mexico drug war worsens

* Biden says drugs czar to oversee comprehensive strategy

* Obama intends to remove the post from the Cabinet (Recasts with Biden comments on Mexico)

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) - Mexico’s drug cartels pose a clear threat to U.S. national security, Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday as the Obama administration named a drug czar to lead the U.S. fight against narco-trafficking.

Some 7,000 people have been killed in an upsurge in violence between Mexican cartels since January 2008. U.S. officials fear the violence is spreading into the southwestern United States, where there have been abductions and execution-style murders tied to the drug trade.

"Violent drug trafficking organizations threaten both the United States and Mexican communities," Biden said at a ceremony to nominate Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the country’s new drug czar.

Biden said Kerlikowske, a 36-year law enforcement veteran, would oversee a strategy to improve information sharing, harness new technologies and increase the interdiction of drugs into the United States and guns and cash flowing into Mexico.

"It is a strategy we need ... in order to bring the situation under control, to protect our people, and to bring about the demise of the Mexican drug cartels," Biden said.

About 90 percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States comes through Mexico. It also is a major source of heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana in the United States, according to Homeland Security officials.

The death toll in the drug wars — 1,000 in January this year alone — has soared since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and sent tens of thousands of troops to fight the country’s powerful cocaine cartels.

NOT CABINET-LEVEL

"With escalating violence along our southwest border and far too many suffering from the disease of addiction here at home, never has it been more important to have a national drug control strategy guided by sound principles of public safety and public health," President Barack Obama said.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Kerlikowske would head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was elevated to Cabinet-level under former President George W. Bush. Obama, however, intends to remove the post from the Cabinet.

"Whether a position is Cabinet-level or not is less important than whether the director will have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made," an administration official said, dismissing suggestions the drug czar was effectively being demoted.

"The director-designate will have full access and a direct line to the president and vice president," the official said.

Kerlikowske, who will help coordinate the work of some 32 agencies involved in the war on drugs, said the United States needed to do "a much better job."

He will oversee the government’s strategy, which involves prevention, reducing abuse and addiction and disrupting the market for illegal drugs.

Biden said the health and economic cost from drug and alcohol abuse in the United States amounted to more than $350 billion a year. (Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen and David Alexander; Editing by Xavier Briand)




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