WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Mexico gripped by rampant drug violence, the United States on Tuesday announced steps to crack down on smuggling of narcotics, guns and money by gangs that threaten security on both sides of the border.
The strategy aims to fight the growing power and violence of Mexican cartels, which ship billions of dollars worth of drugs into the United States and bring back weapons and cash.
The $184 million plan adds 360 federal security agents to border posts and the Mexican interior. It will intensify inspections of southbound traffic, with 100 percent inspections of rail lines, mobile X-ray units for cars, and advanced license-plate readers to identify smugglers.
“What we want to do is to better secure the border area against further violence and make it a safe and secure area where the rule of law is upheld and enforced,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano who unveiled the plan at the White House.
She spoke a day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves on a trip to Mexico to discuss border, economic and climate-change issues.
Turf wars between the cartels and battles with law enforcement killed more than 6,000 people in Mexico last year. They spread fear in much of Mexico and raised U.S. concerns for the stability of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s government and over violence spilling into the United States.
Calderon has made controlling the violence his top priority and sent 45,000 troops across the country to fight the gangs.
The U.S. plan adds to $700 million already handed out by Congress to help Mexican law enforcement and military.
Some said the new strategy did not do enough to stem illegal immigration.
“With hundreds of federal law enforcement officers being relocated to the border, we must ensure that we do not undercut our national security and immigration enforcement responsibilities,” said Republican congressman Lamar Smith.
Also on Tuesday, a U.S. official said the administration wants to complete a proposal to resolve a trucking dispute with Mexico before Obama’s visit, an increasingly prickly trade issue between the neighbors.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told the White House news conference that U.S.-Mexican ties were “as important as any bilateral relationship that we have.”
Mexico is the United States’ second largest export market and third largest overall trading partner. Trade between the two totaled $367.5 billion last year.
After Clinton’s trip, Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama are all planning to visit Mexico next month.
Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said a U.S.-Mexican prosecution effort would be modeled after successful efforts to smash Mafia crime syndicates in the United States.
“If you take their money and lock up their leaders, you can loosen their grips on the vast organizations,” he said.
Calderon’s government has offered rewards of up to $2 million for information leading to the capture of the country’s drug kingpins, including Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.
Investigators say nine out of 10 guns retrieved from crime scenes in Mexico are traced back to the United States. Napolitano said the United States intercepted 997 firearms and $4.5 million in cash bound for Mexico in the last week alone.
Separately, the Obama administration is still considering contingency plans to send U.S. troops, probably National Guard reserves, to the border area in case of a broad outbreak of cross-border violence, Napolitano said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has requested an immediate deployment of 1,000 guard troops, said on Tuesday he was pleased with the Obama administration’s
But “what we really need are more border patrol agents and officers at the bridges ... as well as additional funding for local law enforcement,” he said.
The U.S. plan would allocate $59 million to local U.S. enforcement authorities for border efforts. Moody’s rating agency said a spike in violence could scare some investors away from Mexico.
An increase in drug-related kidnappings has already been noted in some southern U.S. cities, including Phoenix.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said three illegal immigrants from Mexico pleaded guilty this week to holding a drug dealer hostage near Atlanta for a week and regularly beating him in an attempt to collect a $300,000 debt.
Thomas Mangan, with the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix, said more U.S. law enforcement aid on both sides of the border would be welcome.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Chris Wilson