Lawmakers expect revised border violence plan from Calderon visit

Lawmakers are expecting the White House and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to announce a revised two-country plan aimed at addressing the increasing drug violence along the border region when the two heads of state meet this week.

The meeting comes as several members of Congress say they’ve heard rumblings that Obama is inching closer to sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border region, though none could confirm that.

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A spokesman for the White House said Obama was still considering whether to send National Guard troops. He emphasized that “the administration has dedicated unprecedented manpower, technology and infrastructure resources” to the region.

“The president is firmly committed to ensuring that our southwest border is secure,” said Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for the White House. “The administration continues to evaluate additional law enforcement options as well as the use of the National Guard, as needed, along the southwest border.”

In the midst of a renewed focus by Congress on the issue of border violence, a bipartisan group of 17 House lawmakers from the southwest region sent a letter late last month to Obama calling on him to deploy National Guard troops to their home states to combat the growing violence. 

This week Congress is planning to continue its heavy focus on the escalating levels of violence, drug smuggling and illegal gunrunning along the U.S.-Mexico border with hearings flanking Wednesday's state dinner in honor of Calderon. 

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law starts the week Tuesday with a hearing on drug enforcement and the rule of law in Mexico and Colombia.

And the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight follows with a hearing Thursday that will look at the State and Defense departments' management of large contracts that supply counternarcotics assistance to governments in Latin America.

The subcommittee plans to look at the details of each contract – including pertinent audits and legal analysis – and the cost-benefit effectiveness of contracts the U.S. holds in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to combat illegal narcotics trafficking over the past 11 years, according to committee officials.

The hearings come as Calderon plans to meet with Obama and address a joint session of Congress Thursday; he is expected to ask for the continued assistance of the U.S. in battling the drug cartels.

Rep. Eliot Engel(D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he expects the two presidents will announce a new strategy for the two countries.

“I would not be surprised to see the two presidents announce a bold new step,” he told The Hill. “We don’t want Mexico to lapse into anarchy. We have a real stake in it. I can’t think of another country where we, the United States, have more at stake in than Mexico. So we need to do everything we can. And if that involves putting [National] Guard on the border, I think that’s the president’s decision.”

Engel plans to co-chair a joint hearing with his subcommittee and the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism on May 27, which will look at the levels of cooperation around security issues between the U.S. and Mexico.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the U.S. already has a number of programs under way aimed at decreasing violence in Mexico, and if any new commitment is needed, it should come from Calderon.

“I don’t know what more you can do,” he told The Hill. “Maybe some enhanced use of drones or something like that. We really need 100 percent effort on the part of the Mexican government to address the border violence. We haven’t been able to get the numbers down. We’ve done a lot, like training their people, but the violence is still there.”

“Mr. President, if we don’t get our arms around this monster, we’re going to have an even bigger problem,” said Thompson.

Congress’s renewed attention to the violence followed the recent slayings of a U.S. consulate worker in Mexico and an Arizona border rancher. More than 22,700 people have been killed since Calderon took power in 2006 and began an all-out war against drug cartels in his country.

This past week, members of a drug cartel are suspected of killing a mayoral candidate from a Northern region of Mexico that partly stretches along the Texas border. The politician was a member of Calderon’s own National Action Party.

In joint testimony before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control last week, officials from the DEA and the FBI called the levels of violence seen recently “unprecedented” and said they anticipate the violence in Mexico to get worse before it gets better.

But, the officials added, the violence is a sign of the success of the war Calderon has been waging with America’s assistance.

“Anecdotal evidence from around the country and closer to home here in the District of Columbia, including intercepted communications of the traffickers themselves, corroborates the fact that President Calderon’s efforts are making it more difficult for traffickers to supply the U.S. market with illicit drugs,” they said.

Calderon has deployed 45,000 army soldiers to dangerous cities and regions throughout Mexico – including 7,000 to Juarez, where more than 4,500 people have been killed in the past two years.