EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Monday warned Mexico’s drug cartels that any attempt to bring their violent tactics across the border would produce a powerful reaction.
The Obama administration has been under intense pressure to beef up security along the southwest border to prevent spillover from raging drug cartel violence in Mexico as well as to stem an influx of illegal immigrants.
“So today I say to the cartels: Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border,” Napolitano told an audience at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you,” she said.
Napolitano also argued that while there are deep concerns about the violence by the cartels, those who describe the U.S.-Mexico border as overrun with violence and out of control were off the mark.
“This statement — often made only to score cheap political points — is just plain wrong,” she said.
More than 34,000 people in Mexico have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of army troops and federal police to crush cartels warring for lucrative trafficking routes to the United States after he took office in late 2006.
More than 15,000 people were killed in 2010 alone. El Paso recorded a handful of murders last year, while neighboring Ciudad Juarez in Mexico had 3,000.
“Let’s stick with the facts and numbers when we talk about where we are at the southwest border,” she said. “And we’ve matched the decreases in apprehensions (of illegal immigrants) with increases in seizures of cash, drugs, and weapons.”
Approximately 20 protesters gathered outside the auditorium where Napolitano spoke, waving banners criticizing what they called the increased militarization of the border.
President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border last year, and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials.
Napolitano said the administration had also strengthened its partnership with Mexico as well as state, local and tribal authorities on the nearly 2,000-mile-(3,200 km-) long border.
However, border enforcement efforts have faced setbacks. Earlier this month, Napolitano pulled the plug on a troubled “virtual fence” project meant to better guard stretches of the international boundary.
The project, begun in 2006 and run by Boeing Co at a cost of about $1 billion, was designed to use video cameras, radar, sensors and other technologies to catch illegal immigrants and smugglers trying to cross the porous border.
“The program was consistently over budget, behind schedule, and simply not delivering the return on investment needed to justify it,” she said. It is being replaced with existing, proven technologies.
Reporting by Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera in El Paso; Writing by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Editing by Eric Walsh