Border drug war becomes team effort

In an effort to plug a hole in U.S.-Mexico drug enforcement, the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced an agreement Thursday that will give designated immigration agents expanded powers to pursue drug investigations.

A key goal is to end the long-standing turf battles between the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement that many critics believe have hampered investigations.

The agreement will allow an “unlimited” number of ICE agents to be cross-designated as DEA agents, giving them the authority to investigate suspected drug smugglers at the border and internationally -- a prerogative that in the past has been jealously guarded by the DEA.


Both departments also pledged greater information sharing and better coordination of activities.

“Moving past old disputes and ensuring cooperation between all levels of our departments has been one of our top priorities since taking office,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

The agreement “will strengthen our efforts to combat international narcotics smuggling, streamline operations and bring better intelligence to our frontline personnel,” they said.

But the announcement did not satisfy Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has complained for years about the turf battles between the two agencies. Grassley, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said the two did not go far enough in addressing the problems.

“They’ve kicked the can down the road, which could lead to more of the same squabbles we’re trying to get rid of,” Grassley said in a statement.

Officials at both departments refused to release the actual agreement, saying that doing so could give the cartels confidential information about government operations and resources.

It will be in force for one year and then reviewed, with possible changes made before it is renewed for another two years, DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart and ICE Assistant Secretary John T. Morton said in a conference call.

Bradley C. Schreiber, a senior advisor at the Department of Homeland Security from 2007 until earlier this year, said it is uncertain what effect the agreement will have on a stormy relationship that has become institutionalized over several years.

Schreiber said the DEA had been trying to protect its role as the nation’s primary drug enforcement agency in battles with the U.S. Customs Service and, later, Homeland Security.

ICE has also been sharply criticized, by Grassley and federal watchdog auditors, for not sharing information with the DEA and not participating in its special counter-narcotics fusion center.

Schreiber said that as many as 1,300 ICE agents had cross-designation in the past, but in practice, many of them were barred from actually participating in investigations and other drug enforcement efforts. In addition, thousands of other seasoned ICE agents were effectively sidelined in the drug war because they did not get the cross-designation, he said.

At the same time, the FBI has shifted agents to counter-terrorism and the DEA expanded its activities around the world without hiring more agents, leaving the Mexico border vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated drug traffickers, according to Schreiber, Grassley and other critics.

The agreement will allow designated ICE agents to investigate drug cases and a wide array of other crimes in coordination with the DEA -- as long as there is a clear connection to the U.S. border.

“This is one piece of the puzzle in making America safer,” Schreiber said. “Now the federal government is one step closer to taking ownership of the southwest border by putting more boots on the ground, more much-needed personnel on the front lines of the drug war.”