U.S. lawmakers have pressed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano for answers to questions about the future of national security under a shrinking federal budget. Border security concerns have emerged as a key theme, after authorities linked a gun purchased in the U.S. to the recent shooting death of a U.S. customs agent in Mexico.
Napolitano appeared at a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday and cautioned that proposed major budget cuts for her department could put the U.S. at risk.
"All I can say about the House budget for FY11 (Fiscal Year 2011) is that it is not a good budget for security. It will have impacts on things. And if that budget becomes the basis for the FY12 budget, then I think the Congress needs to understand, and I think it my job to help it understand, that in all likelihood it will have a security impact," she said.
Napolitano expressed concern about the escalating levels of violence being carried out by drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. Her comments follow the shooting deaths of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata last month in Mexico and of border patrol agent Brian Terry in December in Arizona. "I would say that the violence in Mexico is something we are very concerned about. It is one of the things we work on very closely with Mexico," she said.
The Justice Department said Tuesday a gun linked to the killing of Zapata last month was purchased by a Texas man. The suspect allegedly had been under surveillance as a suspected gun trafficker for a Mexican drug cartel.
Intelligence expert Fred Burton said the shooting of agent Zapata shows how dangerous it can be to conduct undercover operations to trace the origins of trafficked weapons. "Unfortunately with the U.S. agent killing in Mexico allegedly being linked one of these weapons that our government let flow, this is a blow back of serious proportions," he said.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Dallas, Tony Crowley, said weapons trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico is simply about supply and demand. "Forever, it's been drugs going north. Firearms going south," he said.
Crowley said that with strict gun laws in Mexico, traffickers look to contacts over the border to purchase weapons. His agency has set up a task force, called Project Gunrunner, to curtail the exchange of arms and narcotics across the border.
But both Crowley and Burton said the flow of firearms into Mexico is nearly impossible to track. Mexican and U.S. authorities have estimated that 90 percent of confiscated firearms come from the U.S., but Burton said research like this has tremendous intelligence gaps.
Burton, a vice president for global intelligence firm STRATFOR, says coordination among the U.S. and Mexico, as well as additional funding for the Department of Homeland Security, could play a key role in curbing weapons trafficking and drug cartels. But he said he believes politics will prevent it from happening.
"Well unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that there is no solution. We don't have the political will to address the situation for a host of reasons," he said.
In an interview with Mexican newspaper El Universal last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon lashed out against what he called the U.S. lack of cooperation in fighting the drug cartels. Nearly 34,000 people have been killed from drug-related violence in Mexico since he came to office in 2006.
Mr. Calderon will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington Thursday, in an effort to help mend frayed ties. The influx of U.S. arms into Mexico is expected to be a central part of their discussion.