TUCSON, Ariz. -- Our "War Stories" team is here to document what's happening on our southern border. Herewith, some observations based on interviews with dozens of local, state and federal officials -- and regular American citizens.
First: It is evident that the tidal wave of illegal activity on America's southern border has created a political schism in America. The rift over what to do about our "southern front" may prove wider and deeper than the one created 4 1/2 decades ago when Lyndon Johnson tried to simultaneously create a "Great Society" and fight the Vietnam War. And it's likely to have profound consequences for today's politicians.
Second: The mess on our southern frontier isn't the exclusive purview of just one party -- and it didn't start last year. For decades, many Republicans turned a blind eye to the mass migration of cheap labor northward. It was supposed to be good for business. Democrats responded with the goal of granting "amnesty" to those already here in hopes of creating an enormous new voting bloc loyal to their party. Whether current officeholders or party leaders accept it or not, both ideas are now dead.
Third: The majority of Americans now believe our government must make securing our borders a higher priority. Despite what "progressive" pundits say, it's not racial, anti-Hispanic bigotry or xenophobia that created this movement. It's fear.
A measure of that trepidation originates with the terror attacks of 9/11. And some of this anxiety is a well-founded, rational response to the extraordinary violence that has killed more than 28,000 people in the past four years south of our border. The call to "secure our borders" has become a rallying cry at political events in states and districts thousands of miles from Mexico. It is one of the pillars of the tea party movement. Those who ignore this anxiety do so at their own peril.
Notably, the present "secure our borders" campaign wasn't precipitated by political leaders here in the U.S. It's actually imported -- from south of the border.
It began with the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia. His father was murdered by members of the FARC -- the Marxist-inspired insurgency that turned to drug running when the Soviet Union collapsed and their money dried up. Uribe pledged "an unrelenting campaign" against the FARC and the remnants of the Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels. He delivered.
The U.S. response to the narco-insurgency was "Plan Colombia" -- a $6 billion interagency program to support Colombia's democracy, law enforcement and counter-narcotics efforts with training, equipment and intelligence support. Within months of Uribe's inauguration, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents were bringing extradited narco-kingpins to U.S. courts for prosecution, conviction and lengthy sentences.
Today the Colombian National Police is one of the best counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics forces in the world. More than 30 CNP officers are now in Afghanistan training their Afghan counterparts in the skills that helped rebuild the Colombian economy and democracy.
But Colombia's success was Mexico's undoing. Mexican smuggling networks -- some dating back to the era of Prohibition -- saw the Colombian crackdown as an opportunity to expand their cross-border marijuana and hashish franchises. America's "open borders" were minor obstacles, and Mexican crime rings quickly became the "shippers of choice" for higher-priced Andean cocaine, homemade methamphetamine and heroin. The cartels quickly established "gatekeepers" so that drug and human traffickers could find "soft points" through the unfinished border fence -- or simply bypass it altogether.
By the time Felipe Calderon became president of Mexico in 2006 -- on the promise of "shutting down the cartels" -- the drug lords were vying for power with one another and against their government. When a "cartelista" couldn't buy a mayor, police chief, prosecutor or judge, he killed him and often his family members, as well. Unlike President Uribe in Colombia, Calderon didn't get anything like "Plan Colombia" for Mexico.
The Merida Initiative, started in 2007 by President George W. Bush, never really got off the ground until last year. Since then, the Obama administration's response has been tepid at best. Last week, while our neighbors prepared for their bicentennial celebrations and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama bickered over how bad things are south of the border, the State Department froze $26 million in law enforcement assistance for Mexico, claiming the Calderon government isn't doing enough to protect civil liberties. Nice birthday present -- for the drug cartels.
Washington's staggering ambivalence is affecting U.S. enforcement efforts. Last month, Congress belatedly appropriated $600 million for federal agencies on the border. But the measure allocated no money to finish the border fence, nor were there any funds for state or local law enforcement. Nothing is being done to enforce federal law against "sanctuary cities," such as San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. And the Department of Justice lawsuit against the state of Arizona for trying to protect its citizens from invasion is in the Court of Appeals.
Some folks here along the border wonder just when Washington will wake up. My bet: not until after Nov. 2.
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