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State prosecutor visits key smuggling gateway, promises to add drug officers

Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris praises an interagency task force in Imperial County. Studying the operation will help her convince budget-cutters that it must be preserved, she says.

March 26, 2011|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Imperial, Calif. — State Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris vowed to crack down on crime along the U.S.-Mexico border in a meeting with law enforcement officers in a desert region where officials have struggled for years to plug one of the biggest drug pipelines into the country.

Harris, in her first visit to the border since becoming California's top law enforcement official, said Thursday that she would increase the number of state agents working with the Imperial County Narcotics Task Force. The multiagency force has helped put together some of the biggest cases ever against Mexican organized crime groups, but the county remains a major trafficking corridor, officials said.

"What happens here has impact and effect throughout the state of California," said Harris, who announced that she was boosting staffing from eight to 12 agents. The task force also includes agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police departments.

With Mexico's most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel, operating across the border in Mexicali, the county's wide-open farmland and desert dunes have long served as a convenient thruway to drug markets in Los Angeles and beyond.

The port of entry in the small town of Calexico has led the U.S. in cocaine seizures in recent years, and many of the nation's biggest drug busts along the border have occurred here, according to federal and local officials.

Harris' visit was meant to highlight the work of the task force, which has expanded investigations of local smugglers into sprawling cases targeting drug distribution cells from Sinaloa to New York City. She toured a drug tunnel site and met with more than 20 law enforcement officials from across the state at the task force's operations center.

At the facility, local beat cops work beside federal agents, sharing intelligence, launching raids and monitoring wiretapped telephone conversations. "This center is one of the models in the country on how law enforcement can collaborate," Harris said.

Harris, who has been visiting counties across the state, said learning about the challenges of local law enforcement would help her make the case to budget-slashers in Sacramento. "I'm talking to folks on the ground, so I can articulate exactly why we can't cut resources to our branch of government, which is public safety," Harris said.

Local officials in the southeastern corner of California, who have long felt overshadowed by border efforts in San Diego, expressed appreciation for Harris' visit. Calexico Police Chief Jim Neujahr said drug cartels turned the region into a major trafficking corridor in part because of the relatively small contingent of law enforcement officers in the county with a population of 166,000.

The attorney general, he said, "is absolutely committed to the border, but I hope she has the support behind her, funding-wise, to make it happen."

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