If Mexican drug violence spills across the U.S. border, Homeland Security officials say they have a contingency plan to assist border areas that includes bringing in the military.
"It's a common sense extension of our continued work with our state, local, and tribal partners in securing the southwest border," DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Friday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who described the contingency plan in an interview with The New York Times this week, said he ordered specific plans to be drawn up this summer as violence in Mexico continued to mount.
The plan includes federal homeland security agents helping local authorities and maybe even military assistance from the Department of Defense, possibly including aircraft, armored vehicles and special teams to go to areas overwhelmed with violence, authorities said.
Kudwa would not give specifics on the so-called "surge" plan, but said it does not create any new authorities.
In the last year, more than 5,000 people have been killed and police and military officials have become common targets for violent drug cartels who are fighting with each other and the government for control of lucrative drug and human smuggling routes across Mexico.
More than one-fifth of the deaths have occurred in Ciudad Juarez, the hardscrabble border city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
Watching and waiting
Officials in Mexico reported about 1,600 homicides in Juarez in 2007 and at least 20 people have been killed in the first nine days of this year.
To date, there has been no significant violent spillover from the drug war in Mexico, but U.S. authorities have spent a tense year watching and waiting.
In October, Hidalgo County officials issued fully automatic weapons to deputies patrolling the river in the Rio Grande Valley. Sheriff Lupe Trevino also authorized his deputies to return fire across the border if smugglers or other criminals took aim at them.
In El Paso, the country's largest border community and one of the safest metropolitan areas in the nation, Sheriff Richard Wiles said that while he doesn't anticipate the city or county being overwhelmed by border violence he applauded the DHS plan to quickly respond if the worst should happen.
"I think it's appropriate for the federal government to have a contingency plan all the way up to the worst case scenario," Wiles said.
The contingency plan was news to most border states.
"At this point, DHS has not contacted the California National Guard to bring any forces ... to support first responders, i.e. (U.S.) Border Patrol, at the border in California," California National Guard spokesman Jonathan Guibord said Friday.
He said National Guard officials in California know only "what's been publicized" about the plan, but added that state military officials routinely train and prepare to respond to any order from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or the president.
Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said Texas officials were briefed on the plan but were not consulted beforehand about a plan to fight Mexican drug cartels on the 2,000-mile U.S. border, more than half of which is in Texas.
Cesinger said the state has its own specific security plans for each area of the Texas border should violence from Mexico become an issue. She declined to give specifics of those plans.
Officials with New Mexico's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said they are in constant contact with federal Homeland Security officials but weren't aware of any specific security plan that could include Department of Defense assets.
"We haven't seen a specific operational plan for a specific region or specific threat. The use of Defense Department resources ... would have to be an extreme situation," said Tim Manning, the New Mexico Homeland Security director.
Homeland Security officials did not respond to questions about which local or state agencies were notified about the surge plan.