(CNSNews.com) - A top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) admits that drug cartels have “gatekeepers” who control part of the U.S.-Mexico border, and that securing the southwest border to stem the flow of illegal activities is something that ICE is devoting “time and effort” thinking about.
“We are very conscious of the fact that routes into the United States are controlled by criminal syndicates; that those same routes are often used for narcotics, alien smuggling and vice-versa,” John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE, told CNSNews.com Tuesday.
Morton pointed out that ICE is also aware that criminals watch their every move with the intentions of “thwarting” their enforcement efforts.
“I don’t want to get into the hard investigative specifics, but let me just tell you personally, we’re spending a lot of time and effort thinking about this,” he added.
Morton's comments came in response to a question from CNSNews.com about whether securing the southwest border would stop the illicit dealings that take place there.
Specifically Morton was asked: “If gatekeepers hired by drug cartels are controlling part of the border, why don’t American authorities mainly focus their efforts on securing the border? Wouldn’t that solve the problem of illegal activities?”
Morton agreed that the problem with the drug “gatekeepers,” mentioned in a March 2009 report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an arm of the Justice Department, is real, and he said ICE plans to collaborate with other agencies on enforcement.
“I think that part of your question goes to the recognition that this problem along the border is multifaceted and that many of the same people who are involved in the smuggling of guns are also involved in smuggling of narcotics, and of money and of people,” Morton told CNSNews.com.
He added: “That’s the whole reason for us to not only just put more agents, put more inspectors along the border, but rather to do it in a way that pulls together the various authorities that each of the agencies have in a coordinated manner so that we can really focus on the full range of problems that even a given case can present.”
Morton’s comments came during a telephone news conference June 30 that also included Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Kenneth Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The conference call took place after a summit in Albuquerque, N.M., titled “Violent Crime and Firearms Trafficking,” where the ATF and ICE signed a memorandum announcing a new joint effort to combat problems of drug smuggling and gun smuggling that affect both sides of the border.
“This morning, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) took another step forward in our combine efforts towards a more efficient and effective law enforcement approach to the challenges we face from the Mexican cartels,” Ogden, the number two man at the Justice Department, said.
Ogden said the agreement means that ICE and the Justice Department will share “critical intelligence” on investigations.
“One of the other elements . . . is the creation of an inter-agency working group at the highest level of ATF and ICE that will be working with our respective agents in the field to make sure we continue to coordinate and cooperate out there and to share intelligence and investigative information,” said Ogden.
Morton said the agreement sends an “unambiguous and clear message” to drug cartels and “should also go out to those individuals who are trafficking illegally in guns.”
“We are now working more closely than ever with respect to these investigations and we are going to be more effective, I think, with respect to ferreting out the gun traffickers and prosecuting them with association to the U.S. attorneys,” he added.
As for when the American people can expect to see results, the ATF’s Melson said that currently it is hard to tell, but how success will be measured will depend on the “investigative techniques” that are put into place.
“The issue of metrics is a very important one and a lot of that will depend on the investigative techniques that we employ. We’ll be using a number of metrics -- the number of guns seized, the number of guns that are traced, (and) the number of prosecutions,” he said.
Melson said that Mexican authorities are submitting an increasing number of guns to U.S. authorities asking them to trace the weapons, and ATF plans to improve its e-Trace gun tracing system.
“With respect to e-Trace, Mexico submitted 7,500 trace requests to ATF to help determine the origin of those weapons and we expect that with Spanish e-Trace coming out in December of this year . . . those e-Traces will increase,” said Melson.
Stopping the tide of illegal weapons across the U.S. Mexican broder is a top priority, Ogden said.
"We are very focused on enforcing the laws on the books against illegal gun trafficking and this agreement is a critical step in doing that as effectively as we possibly can,” Ogden said.
A June 18 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on illegal gun trafficking recommended that the DOJ work more closely with DHS in sharing information and duplicating efforts.
However, the panel of DOJ and DHS officials said they were considering joining forces before the GAO released its report.
Melson pointed out the new agreement between ATF an ICE should not indicate that the two agencies have not worked together before, but it should rather shed light on a new approach of how to combat the Mexican drug cartel induced violence.
“We are not indicating that we have not been partners before, but all over the United States ICE and ATF agents and field officers are working very closely together to combat the flow of guns down south and gun trafficking in the United States in general,” he said.