The Homeland Security Department has drawn up emergency plans for dispatching U.S. military personnel to the nation's southwest border if violence in Mexico continues to spiral out of control, but such action would occur only as a last resort, a senior department official told lawmakers Thursday.
The department has been "actively engaged" with the National Guard, the Defense Department and U.S. Northern Command in planning for worst-case scenarios along the Mexican border, retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger Rufe, director of Homeland Security's office of operations coordination, told the House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee.
"The most extreme measure would be calling upon significant DoD support, which we don't see [the need for] at the present time but nevertheless is there," he said. Rufe said deploying troops is one part of a series of contingency plans the department has developed.
National Guard troops were sent to the border under the Bush administration as part of an effort called Operation Jumpstart. But that program ended in the summer. President Obama said on Wednesday that his administration will examine "whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense," according to McClatchy Newspapers.
Obama said he did not have a trigger in mind that would tip the scale in favor of sending Guard troops back to the border. At Thursday's hearing, lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to obtain information from Homeland Security officials about what would prompt a U.S. military response to Mexican violence. "There's no real bright line about what that tipping point would be," Rufe said. "That is essentially a last resort." He said the department does not want to militarize the border, adding that there is no plan to keep the National Guard along the border on a prolonged basis.
Lawmakers questioned whether U.S. laws need to be changed, either to curb the availability of weapons in the United States or to improve federal interagency cooperation. Arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico is the primary source of weapons for drug cartels, according to officials from both countries. "If you stop the growth of marijuana, you don't have to worry about it being sold. We have to approach guns the same way," said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas. Homeland Security Border Subcommittee Chairwoman Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., told department officials to inform her panel in writing if any legislative changes are needed. Salvador Nieto, a senior official with Customs and Border Protection, said his agency does not have enough personnel or the right infrastructure to inspect all vehicles traveling from the United States to Mexico to determine if they are smuggling weapons.