Border lawmakers: Humanitarian aid just the start in fighting drug violence

Lawmakers from districts along the country’s southern border say America's recent push to increase developmental aid to Mexico is just the beginning of what’s needed to effectively thwart the country’s increasing levels of drug cartel violence.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently led a high-level delegation to Mexico in which she outlined a renewed push by the U.S. to bolster Mexico’s fight against the root causes of crime by backing more education, healthcare, and drug prevention programs.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district sits along the U.S.-Mexico border and who is on the Homeland Security Committee, said that Clinton’s announcement was a good start but that the U.S. should also look at providing young adults, who may be especially strapped for money as the economy continues to roil, with jobs.

“I think we need it,” said Cuellar of humanitarian aid to Mexico in an interview. “While the military plays a role, we’ve also got to strengthen the civilian institutions like the prosecutorial and the judges part of it, and the prisons, and then address how do we keep some of the young kids from being pulled into the gangs.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose district spans several hundred miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, also heralded the White House’s renewed push for civic aid to battle crime in Mexico, but said that more would be needed to fight the flow of guns from the U.S. over the border.

“The training and refortifying the Mexican law enforcement effort helps, but also diverting some of that funding to healthcare and basic necessities along the border is also a very smart move,” he told The Hill.

“Some have been saying that the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] should get more resources to be able to carry out that fight against controlling the flow of guns from here to there, and I hope that’s part of that strategy,” he said. 

Clinton’s move comes after three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate were shot dead earlier this month in a gang-style assassination in the city of Juarez, which is a known hotspot for drug and gang activity.

The slayings added to the nearly 18,000 people who have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took power in 2006 and began an all-out war against drug cartels in his country.

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 -- but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this month that the troops have not helped thwart the violence a great deal.

Cuellar said that he plans to call for a committee hearing when Congress returns from its spring recess in mid-April to take a close look at what more the U.S. needs to be doing, such as increasing the speed with which funds and supplies are delivered to the Mexican government.

“I’m all for accountability,” he said. “But there’s got to be speed, too. The Mexican drug cartels are not waiting there and saying, ‘OK, law enforcement guys, we’re going to wait until the Americans give you this or that, so we can be more fair in our fight.’ They’re not waiting for us.”

The White House’s renewed push, as outlined by Clinton earlier this month, is planning to focus its “long-term strategic vision” on disrupting the cartels in both the U.S. and Mexico by promoting “social cohesion” in the border region while combating factors that turn people to lives of crime, through making humanitarian and civic services more available and reliable.

Clinton also called for cracking down on the financial backing of the cartels by sharing intelligence and resources between the countries to investigate and bust money laundering operations.

The plan pulls off of the $1.6 billion Merida initiative – an aid package geared toward strengthening Mexican law enforcement and border security.