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Plan would put troops on US-Mexico border

Pentagon initiative expands military role in drug war

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post / April 25, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Pentagon and Homeland Security Department are developing contingency plans to send National Guard troops to the US-Mexican border under a $350 million initiative that would expand the US military's role in the war on drugs, according to Obama administration officials.

The circumstances under which the troops could be deployed have not been determined, the officials said. They said the proposal was designed to give President Obama additional flexibility to respond to the drug-related violence that has threatened to spill into the United States from Mexico and to curb southbound smuggling of cash and weapons.

The initiative, which was tucked into a supplemental budget request sent to Congress this month, has raised concerns over what some US officials perceive as an effort by the Pentagon to increase its counternarcotics profile through a large pot of money that comes with few visible requirements.

The broadly worded proposal does not mention troop deployments, stipulating only that the military is to receive up to $350 million "for counternarcotics and other activities on the United States' border with Mexico."

If contingency plans go unactivated, the money will be retained by the Defense Department for general operations and maintenance uses after Sept. 2010, an administration official said.

The proposal is being closely monitored by the State Department, which administers the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a three-year aid package to fight drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America. The new funding would be nearly as much as the 2009 budget for Merida, and some observers said they fear that the military could use the money to set up a parallel counternarcotics program with little oversight.

House and Senate committees began receiving briefings from White House budget staff this past week. Some lawmakers and aides in both chambers said they were unaware that the funds would be allocated to deploy National Guard troops on the border, adding that the vague wording has sown doubts about how the money would be used and why it is being funneled through an $83 billion war funding request.

"Frankly, I'm baffled that an additional $350 million has been requested under the defense appropriation," said Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes democracy and human rights in the region, said the request lacks the accountability provisions included in the Merida Initiative, which was passed after more than a year of debate in the United States and Mexico.

"They may say that this is for the National Guard, but the way it's written it is really a blank check for the Defense Department to do whatever it wants on counterdrug issues at the border - and it doesn't say which side of the border," Olson said. "When it came to Merida, Congress scrutinized every dollar. Now the administration is asking Congress to give DOD almost as much money for counterdrug activities without any explanation."

The administration did not seek additional funding under Merida because the new assistance is targets only the US side of the border, said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.