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State attorney general vows crackdown on crime in desert along U.S.-Mexico border

March 25, 2011 | 12:04 pm

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California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris vowed to implement a crackdown 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 on Thursday that she would increase the number of state agents working  with the Imperial County Narcotics Task Force. The multi-agency force has put together some of the biggest cases 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 is boosting staffing from eight to 12 agents. The task force also includes agents from the DEA, 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 nation in cocaine seizures in recent years, and many of the nation’s biggest drug busts 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.

Harris, who has been visiting various counties, 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 a 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,” he said.

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-- Richard Marosi

Photo: Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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