The United States moved Thursday for the first time to enlist the National Guard in its war on drugs, granting $11.7 million in special funds to California and 11 other states to allow guardsmen to inspect goods and man borders along the nation’s Southern and Western perimeter.
The action will mark a fundamentally new role for many Guard units, whose troops generally conduct only weekend and summer-camp training in isolation from law enforcement and other military units.
It also marks the first new military involvement in the anti-drug effort since Congress authorized a stepped-up role for the services in sweeping legislation late last year.
Seek to Curb Drug Flow
Under the plan, announced by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, guardsmen are to work closely with federal drug and customs agents in efforts to curb the flow of illegal drugs and to wipe out drug crops and laboratories.
Their duties are to include monitoring borders from camouflaged hide-outs, eradicating marijuana fields and searching ships, boats and automobiles at the nation’s entry points, state officials said.
The guardsmen will not, however, be permitted to seize goods or arrest suspects. Such duties will continue to be carried out by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Customs Service and other federal and state police agencies.
“We’ve got obviously to safeguard the rights of those who are innocent and you need trained law enforcement personnel to do that,” Cheney said in an interview with wire service reporters.
“We will support law enforcement,” echoed Maj. Steve Mensik, a spokesman for the 28,000-member California National Guard. “We will not become law enforcement.”
Called First Phase
The grants to the National Guard units in the states bordering the Pacific, Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico were the first step in what is to be a 50-state campaign for which $40 million in spending has been authorized this year.
When the operation is fully in place, it will enable the government to increase fivefold the number of inspections it conducts on goods entering the country, Justice Department spokesman David Runkel said.
Officials said that the 12 states have been given “level one” priority because of their proximity to the southern border, the frequency of drug shipment entries through them, or the extent of marijuana cultivation within them.
National Guard spokesmen in the states said that they hope to launch their new operations within days and that they plan special training programs to help troops learn their new duties. Some cautioned, however, that the adjustment might not be easy.
“We have never done this before,” said Tom Koch, a spokesman for the New Mexico National Guard. “This is all a learning process for us.”
“We like to look at it as a new definition of our current role,” said Maj. Joseph S. Jiminez, a spokesman for the Washington National Guard. “The current role is to protect the community in time of national disaster and in time of war.
“We look at this as another way of protecting the community,” he said.
The states targeted for the new National Guard role include Florida, with a grant of $3.4 million; Texas ($2.9 million); Louisiana ($1.2 million); California ($990,000), and Alabama ($931,000). Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington received smaller amounts.
National Guard officials in those states said that their anti-drug forces would be staffed by troops who volunteer to assume duties beyond the required service of one weekend a month and two weeks each summer.
“They can’t just do this on weekends,” said Col. Ken Forrester of the Florida National Guard. "(Guardsmen) are basically going to have to raise their hands and say: ‘Yeah, I can get off work for the next two weeks. I’ll help you.’ ”
The officials said that they envision no difficulty in enlisting such volunteers, but a spokeswoman in Louisiana said that her superiors are prepared to order troops into additional service, if necessary.
Because no federal funds previously have been allocated for anti-drug efforts by the National Guard, most guardsmen have had no experience in such operations.
In some states, however, guard units have assisted state agencies and even the DEA in small-scale drug crackdowns. In California, for example, the National Guard has assisted in marijuana eradication efforts mounted by the state attorney general’s office and has helped in some drug surveillance efforts along the Mexican border.
Crash Mars Operation
One such initiative, Operation Border Ranger, was marred last October when a National Guard helicopter crashed 63 miles east of San Diego during a secret drug operation, killing three guardsmen and five sheriff’s deputies.
But spokesman Mensik made clear that the new program will give a major boost to the California Guard’s anti-drug program.
“Some of the things that we’ll be doing will be new to us,” he said. “And I’m sure that there will be some things we’ll be doing that we haven’t even been thinking about yet.”
The Texas National Guard also has assisted the DEA in some activities, as well as the Customs Service in searching cargo at the state’s borders and ports for two weeks last summer.
But a spokesman there, Col. Ed Komandosky, said that the new role “marks a major step forward for us.” He said that guardsmen could be on duty at border crossings as early as Saturday.
Officials in most states said they expect that guardsmen primarily will assist Customs officers in searches and provide air transportation and other support in the marijuana eradication efforts.
But the duties may vary from state to state.
Use of F-15 Jets Likely
In Louisiana, for example, a spokesman said that the Guard expects to use its F-15 jets and Huey helicopters in extensive aerial surveillance efforts. And in New Mexico, where the Guard specializes in anti-aircraft tactics, a spokesman said that the unit expects to assist in radar surveillance.
The New Mexico official, Koch, said that the Guard there expects also to be involved in extensive ground operations, in which “a team of two, three or four soldiers occupy a concealed occupation post adjacent to drug corridors.
The task of the Guard, he emphasized, would be to “stand off and observe only. When something happens, they’d use their radios. Then the sheriff and the posse would arrive on the scene to make the arrests.”
Staff writers Doug Shuit in Sacramento and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington contributed to this story.