Federal and local law enforcement authorities Friday applauded the escalated National Guard involvement in drug-enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border and at other ports of entry, but officials said the program was being phased out this weekend because of a lack of funds.
The monthlong initiative, which involved both armed and unarmed guardsmen working alongside civilian law enforcement officers, contributed to almost 500 drug-related arrests and a number of major drug busts, including the seizures of nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine and more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana, officials said.
"The operation was successful on every measure," John E. Hensley, assistant regional commissioner for enforcement for the U.S. Customs Service, the lead agency in the program, said at a press conference at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center.
Critics have questioned the wisdom of posting U.S. troops--particularly armed soldiers--along the border area, a concern heightened by the acknowledgement this week that the guardsmen are also reporting the presence of undocumented immigrants along the border.
California is the first and only state to use armed guardsmen along the border. Unarmed guard troops have been assisting customs inspectors in Texas and Arizona, officials said.
But Hensley and other lawmen played down the arming of guardsmen and expressed the hope that the guard program would be instituted on a permanent basis. Its future depends on the availability of federal funding and an evaluation by authorities in Washington.
"As soon as all of the civilian agencies have digested the information obtained as a result of the operation, we will have a better idea whether we need to come back again," said Maj. Gen. Robert C. Thrasher, who heads the 27,000-member state guard.
As many as 400 guardsmen participated in the operation. They did not make arrests, but instead reported the presence of suspected lawbreakers to non-military officers, who conducted the seizures and apprehensions. Federal law limits the role of guardsmen and other military units in civilian law enforcement. The weapons were strictly for self protection, authorities said.
The guardsmen's presence is the most visible manifestation of longtime efforts in Congress to increase military involvement in the anti-drug-trafficking campaign. Congress has appropriated about $40 million for National Guard assistance to the drug war, including about $1 million for California. Another $1 million for the guard came from state funds. But all $2 million will have been spent by this weekend, thus requiring additional funding before the program can continue, a spokesman said.
Besides the border duty, unarmed guardsmen were posted last month alongside U.S. Customs Service inspectors at ports of entry in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego.