WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is keeping close watch on the violence from Mexico's drug war, but he said Wednesday so far it hasn't spilled into this country enough to justify sending troops to the border.
"We've got a very big border with Mexico," he said. "I'm not interested in militarizing the border."
Last month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry visited El Paso, Texas - whose neighbor, Ciudad Juarez, has taken the brunt of drug violence that has claimed more than 7,000 lives in Mexico in 14 months - and called on Washington to send a thousand troops or border agents.
"We're going to examine whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense," Obama told The Dallas Morning News in an hour-long talk with 14 regional newspapers. "I don't have a particular tipping point in mind."
Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drug cartels nearly two years ago, setting off waves of violence as rival gangs fight for turf and resist the government crackdown. Obama emphasized he will continue working closely with Mexico and said within "a few months" he will offer a comprehensive policy to curtail U.S. demand for drugs and curb the southbound flow of cash and guns that give the cartels "extraordinary power."
"It's really a two-way situation," he said, promising a combination of border security, law enforcement, prevention and treatment.
"We're fighting with one hand tied behind our back because our effort to lower demand is grossly underfunded," Obama said. "The average person who's seeking serious substance abuse treatment in a big city like Dallas or Chicago typically has a three-, four- or six-month waiting list to get enrolled."
Obama has said little until now about the horrific violence in Mexico, which has included beheadings, assassinations of top anti-drug officials and police, running gun battles in border cities and the resignations of law enforcement officials who flee into the U.S. for safety.
Obama lauded Calderon for "taking some extraordinary risks under extraordinary pressure to deal with the drug cartels."
In 2007, then-President George W. Bush hammered out a deal with Calderon, called the Merida Initiative, to provide equipment and training to help Mexico take on the traffickers and weed out corruption.
Obama noted recent high-level contacts between U.S. and Mexican officials as a sign of the ongoing partnership.
Last Friday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with counterparts in Mexico and offered more intelligence and surveillance, as well as training based on lessons learned against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder have already met with top Mexican officials, too.
On Wednesday, Obama named a national drug czar, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. Bush had given the post Cabinet rank. Obama removed that designation but said that's not a reflection on how seriously he takes the effort to curtail drug use.
"We do have to treat this as a public health problem, and we do have to have significant law enforcement,' he said. "If we can reduce demand, obviously that allows us to focus more effectively where interdiction is needed."
As a candidate, Obama called the "war on drugs ... an utter failure." He also said he was open to legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Asked Wednesday if he believes this country is still engaged in a war on drugs, he avoided the phrase but promised not to weaken drug laws and to pursue border security and law enforcement while putting fresh emphasis on prevention and treatment.
President George W. Bush's drug czar, John Walters, agreed on the need for a multifaceted approach.
"It's not an endless battle, and it's not a war like the Vietnam War," said Walters in a separate interview. "The issue of the 'war' has become a kind of metaphor for using inappropriate means, or focusing on force, or focusing on the supply side rather than the demand side. We have learned that we need balance."
Obama also offered assurance Americans won't be put at risk when he closes the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfers some detainees to U.S. facilities. Texas Republicans in Congress are among those who have denounced his plan, insisting he send terror suspects elsewhere.
"We already have experience with terrorists who are in federal prisons," Obama said. "And there's been no indication that the safety or security of prison guards or of surrounding communities have been compromised."
On food safety, Obama said he has ordered the Agriculture Department and the Health and Human Services Department to work more closely and develop better procedures, after a salmonella outbreak traced to peanut processors in Texas and Georgia. The nation needs "better warning signals" from food producers and an ability to track contamination more quickly, he said.
© 2009, The Dallas Morning News.Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Reprinted Via Newscom.