MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. troops deployed to the Mexican border will take a backseat role to civilian security forces combating illegal flows of drugs and migrants and will not militarize the frontier, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico said on Wednesday.
In response to spiraling drug violence in northern Mexico where cartels are battling for smuggling routes, President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday he would send 1,200 more National Guard troops and ask for an additional $500 million to secure the almost 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
But U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said the number of soldiers was tiny compared to the 26,000 immigration, customs and border patrol agents.
“This isn’t a militarization of the border. In fact the overall share of the military is still relatively small,” Pascual told correspondents at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. He said with the 300 National Guard troops already stationed at the border, the total number would not surpass 1,500.
“I think it is important that we continue to reinforce in our strategy that we are putting civilian law enforcement agencies out front and that they have the lead,” he said.
The troops, rather than carrying out operations to dismantle drug cartels or human smuggling rings, will be working in back offices helping intelligence officials process information, or be posted as lookouts between ports of entry.
Border experts and human rights workers say the border is already militarized with parallel steel fences backed up by sensors and patrolled by helicopters and armed border agents.
Republicans have criticized Obama’s plan for not going far enough. They want him to send 6,000 troops, which is how many his Republican predecessor George W. Bush sent in 2006, in “Operation Jump Start.”
“Though this initial deployment is an important first step, the President is not sending enough troops,” said Arizona’s two U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, who introduced an amendment seeking to force Obama to send more soldiers.
The lawmakers are concerned about Mexican drug violence spilling over the border. More than 23,000 people have been killed as drug gangs fight turf wars and battle federal agents and the army, since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 promising to attack the cartels head on.
The frightening daytime shootouts with automatic weapons that have become a common occurrence in northern Mexican cities like Ciudad Juarez have not been seen on the U.S. side of the border, Pascual said.
The flow of illegal immigrants, a hot button issue after Arizona passed a tough new illegal immigration crackdown, can only be solved with comprehensive reform backed both by Obama and Calderon when they met in Washington last week, he said. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington)