Officials exploring joint task force on Southwest border

WASHINGTON — The heads of two key agencies charged with policing the nation's Southwest border agreed Wednesday to move toward creating a task force that would bring multiple military and civilian agencies under one roof to combat drug trafficking, smuggling and violence.

A U.S. House of Representatives homeland security subcommittee asked for an assessment of whether the military and civilian agencies that could be involved are willing to move forward. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton and newly appointed Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Alan Bersin agreed to report back in 90 days.

The step came at the urging of Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the top Republican on the subcommittee, and Democrats, including subcommittee chairman David Price, D-N.C., supported his request. Rogers said that he hopes to see the joint task force created in the coming fiscal year.

"The problem on that border is becoming so desperate and so dangerous and so threatening to our entire country . . . . I think we have to do something quickly, and I think it has to be bold," Rogers said.

Bersin cautioned against undertaking a major overhaul in such a short period of time. Morton didn't give a timetable, but said that creating a joint headquarters on the Southwest border appears likely.

"I think the momentum is very much in favor of the general concept that you've outlined, and it's just a matter of time," Morton told Rogers.

A year ago, the Obama administration launched its Southwest Border Initiative, an effort to crack down on drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. Violence along the border has gained a higher profile in recent weeks with the killing of three people associated with the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez and of a rancher in Arizona.

A joint task force could bring together multiple agencies from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense in a unified headquarters where they could share information and coordinate operations. A similar joint operation in Key West, Fla., targets drug trafficking in the Caribbean.

Apart from getting buy-in from all agencies involved, Morton said officials would need to decide where a Southwest task force would be headquartered. The existing El Paso Intelligence Center would be a prime candidate. The Drug Enforcement Administration requested $42 million in the 2011 budget to expand the center.

However, Morton said ICE has made no decision on whether a joint task force should be headquartered there, at another existing center or in a new location.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha declined Wednesday afternoon to elaborate on the potential logistics of creating a joint task force.

(Sewell, a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University, reports for the Medill School Washington Program.)


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