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DEA: Mexican drug violence is a sign of progress, not failure

Federal agencies are ramping up support for fighting drug cartels south of the border.

Skyrocketing violence south of the border indicates the Mexican government's efforts to fight drug cartels are paying off, senior Drug Enforcement Administration officials said on Wednesday.

"Our view is that the violence we have been seeing is a signpost of the success our very courageous Mexican counterparts are having," said Michele Leonhart, acting DEA administrator. "The cartels are acting out like caged animals, because they are caged animals."

Leonhart's comments came a day before President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were scheduled to meet with their Mexican counterparts in Mexico City.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has taken on the cartels as a top priority, and they are fighting back hard. In 2008, Mexican officials attributed 6,290 murders to drug-related violence, more than double the number in 2007. Several hundred of the victims were government officials and many of their bodies were mutilated and placed where they would be found, to warn others against opposing cartel operations.

The growing violence in Mexico -- much of it in the border cities from which most methamphetamines, marijuana, cocaine and heroin enter the United States -- is raising concerns among lawmakers and administration officials about the stability of the Mexican government and spillover violence in the United States.

Napolitano has pledged to improve inspections of southbound traffic at the border to confiscate the weapons and cash that fuel the violence. On Wednesday, DHS announced it would significantly increase the personnel dedicated to Southwest border operations. Among other actions, the department plans to double the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents assigned to border enforcement task forces from 95 to 190 to facilitate more effective cross-border enforcement actions.

A number of lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., have proposed expanding U.S. law enforcement operations to curb spillover violence and improve border security.

Anthony Placido, DEA assistant administrator and chief of intelligence, said there were three broad categories of violence associated with the cartels: individuals vying for power within the five main cartels, the cartels fighting each other for control of lucrative aircraft landing rights and transit points, and the cartels fighting government officials who thwart their operations.

DEA officials said they have seen very little spillover into the United States. Abductions and murders reported in Phoenix and other major U.S. cities, sometimes described as related violence, have been committed by cartel members against associates operating in the United States. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials define spillover violence as deliberate, planned attacks on innocent civilians, officials or physical institutions in the United States.

Placido and others said they hope and expect the outcome in Mexico will be similar to that in Colombia, where for years the cartels assassinated judges and other officials, occupied huge swaths of territory and terrorized the population, until the Colombian government demonstrated the will and the wherewithal to fight back effectively. Cartel-related activity in Colombia has been reduced from a national security threat to a more manageable law enforcement problem, Placido said.