WASHINGTON - A top Homeland Security official told Congress Thursday that National Guard troops will intervene on the U.S.-Mexico border only as a "last resort" to combat drug violence.
Roger T. Rufe Jr., the Homeland Security Department's head of operations, outlined still evolving contingency plans for dealing with the violence, one day after President Barack Obama said "we're going to examine whether and if National Guard deployment would make sense."
The violence between Mexican drug gangs fighting for trafficking routes to the U.S. killed about 6,000 people in Mexico last year, including more than 500 police and soldiers. Some American officials, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have demanded that the federal government send troops to reinforce local law officers.
Not a danger to tourists
However, the Homeland Security Department's representative in Mexico, Alonzo Pena, told a House subcommittee on border security that the violence in Mexico is not as dangerous to U.S. tourists as has been portrayed.
The violence is in isolated areas of the country, Pena said, and affects only the people involved in criminal activity. He said the violence is not affecting U.S. citizens visiting Mexico, and Americans should not cancel their vacations in the country.
Rufe told the panel that the Obama administration is working on a four-phase blueprint for dealing with the violence on the border should the need arise. He emphasized, however, that the administration will not permanently militarize the border.
The first, or lowest, phase would require the Homeland Security Department to respond to Mexican drug-gang violence with its own personnel. The second phase would involve other federal agencies. The third, or most severe stage, would deploy military forces to the border. The fourth phase would demobilize the force.
A controversial plan
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, pressed Rufe about when the Obama administration would "hit the tipping point" to use troops on the border.
McCaul didn't get a direct answer. "There's no real bright line as to what that tipping point would be, because the scenarios are so different," Rufe replied.
National Guard deployments have been controversial along the border for years. U.S. Marines deployed in counter-drug operations in 1997 shot and killed an 18-year-old shepherd in Texas, sparking investigations and resistance in the Pentagon to deploying combat forces to assist police forces.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who attended Thursday's hearing, said the testimony suggested that law enforcement agencies were poorly coordinating their efforts along the border. She said she was preparing legislation designed to force greater border security cooperation between federal agencies.
Another member of the panel, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said the border violence can be solved only if all parts of the equation are examined.
"Let's examine our gun laws," he said. "Let's cut down on U.S. drug consumption, let's ask there to be more resources to root out drug money laundering."