WASHINGTON – US border czar Alan Bersin warned Mexico's brutal drug cartels Tuesday that threats to target law enforcement officials on both sides of the border would be met by a "significant response."
Bersin said a recent call by one cartel kingpin to ramp up violence against US and Mexican law enforcement agents was potentially of "grave significance" and was being "taken seriously" by the administration.
"Should law enforcement, border patrol agents, customs officers or local and state law enforcement officers be targeted that would be considered a major departure from existing practice of the cartels, and a threat that called for a significant response," he said.
Recent reports indicated that Joaquin Guzman, who heads the powerful Sinaloa cartel, had ordered his underlings to "contest law enforcement" if caught, instead of "the classic procedure, which is when challenged by law enforcement to leave the drugs and flee," according to Bersin.
While drawing a line in the sand, Bersin did not specify what the US response might be, except to say efforts would be stepped up to apprehend those responsible.
Guzman's apparent threat comes as the cartels hit back at the Mexican government, which has launched a more forceful crackdown on their activities, including the deployment of the army to hotspots.
Guzman - known throughout Mexico as El Chapo, or Shorty - is already on the US Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) list of most wanted drug bosses.
The DEA has offered five million dollars for information leading to his capture, and has even set up an email address - email@example.com - to glean information about his whereabouts.
He was recently named the 701st richest man in the world by Forbes magazine, with an estimated fortune of around one billion dollars.
DEA officials say he has been a key player in the escalation of Mexican drug violence in recent years, as rival cartels battle to control the lucrative cocaine trade to the United States - the world's largest consumer.
The United States has promised Mexico 1.5 billion dollars in military aid, in part to boost its southern neighbor's counternarcotics capabilities.
In Mexico, an estimated 7,000 people have died since early 2008 from drug-related violence, prompting fears the turf wars may spill over the border.
Bersin, tapped in April by President Barack Obama to head the administration's response to that threat, said Mexico's recent decision to crackdown on cartels provides a historic opportunity to combat them.
His comments came less than a week after the Obama administration announced a wide-ranging strategy to target the flow of drugs and cash across its southwestern border.
Among the measures foreseen was an increase in intelligence gathering and analysis as well as efforts to trim US drug consumption, which the Obama administration has admitted is the cause of Mexico's violence.
As part of that drive, Bersin said the United States had also stepped up its south-bound checks for cash and arms flowing back to Mexico, which the government there says keeps the cartels in business.
According to the DEA, bulk cash consignments from the United States to Mexico and Colombia have increased in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, which resulted in closer monitoring of electronic money transfers.
Bersin, who served in a similar position under former president Bill Clinton, said increased checks at the border crossings had not yet had a measurable impact, but would over time prove a deterrent to cartels.
The trade in drugs to the United States is thought to be worth billions of dollars each year and border and port seizures are common.
On Tuesday, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency said it had stopped a truck in Calexico - on California's border with Mexico - carrying 477,000 dollars worth of cocaine.
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