Federal officials will lay off roughly one thousand National Guard troops assigned to drug interdiction efforts nationwide starting January 31. The Guardsmen were supposed to be paid for out of a $40 million increase in counter-drug programs in the 2002 defense appropriation bill, but that money was first trimmed to $33 million, then earmarked for specific projects in a handful of states during a House-Senate conference. The National Guard's State Plans counter-drug account within the "Drug Interdiction and Counter-drug Activities" line item of the defense budget has thus come up short.
While the National Guard and state law enforcement officials apparently went ahead on the assumption that funds would be found, the money has instead run out. Officials in Arizona and Florida announced in the last two weeks that layoffs were coming in their states. Texas officials confirmed to DRCNet that they, too, were losing troops, while a group of congressional drug warriors told the White House cuts would come in every state.
In Florida, Jon Myatt, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Military Affairs, the agency that manages the Florida National Guard, told the Miami Herald on January 9 that the budget shortfall will mean the loss of 70 active duty positions, almost half of the 156 Guard members assigned to help US Customs and the DEA in the state. "We provide the manpower," said Myatt. "We inspect the hulls of ships, climb inside the carriers looking for signs of contraband and drugs. We're the extra set of hands and eyes for law enforcement and Customs," he added. "It's going to be tough to lose those soldiers," said Myatt. "Unfortunately, drug traffickers don't go away."
Also unhappy was Florida drug czar James McDonough, who told the Herald the layoffs were "a big hit" against interdiction efforts. The Guard did a lot of labor-intensive anti-drug work, said McDonough. "You lose the physical on-site inspection and the deterrent factor once you begin moving them from the docks," he said.
Among those let go are 43 Guardsmen assigned to the Port of Miami and Miami International Airport and eight intelligence analysts and linguists for the DEA in Miami and Jacksonville. Another eight intelligence analysts are being laid off in other parts of the state, Myatt said.
In Arizona, Major Jim Kellett told the Arizona Republic on Tuesday that 60 full-time active-duty Guard members assigned to anti-drug activities are being relieved of duty because of the budget shortfall. Most being laid off in Arizona work in Phoenix and Tucson, but the cuts will also affect staffing at border checkpoints in Nogales and Yuma, where Guardsmen operate scanning devices and assist Customs with vehicle searches.
Jim Molesa, spokesman for the DEA Phoenix office, told the Republic that staffing shifts would cover some of the missing personnel, but without the intelligence analysis and communication support provided by Guard units, some multi-agency drug operations will suffer "big time."
In Texas, National Guard public affairs officer Lt. Col. Robert Luna told DRCNet that the Texas Guard expected to lay off between 55 and 57 members assigned to drug interdiction, but Luna also expressed a faint hope that funding would be found between now and the end of the month. "If we get more funding, that won't happen, but that's not up to us, that's federal money," he said.
Congressional drug warriors are making a last-minute effort to try to make that happen. A spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) told DRCNet that Graham "certainly hopes" to obtain more funding and that his office had organized a letter sent to President Bush on Tuesday asking that the funding gap be addressed. That letter was also signed by 14 senators and 18 members of the House.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by DRCNet, the bipartisan, bicameral group played the terrorism card in urging President Bush to restore funds. The signers wrote that they agreed with Bush's public assertions that "drug trafficking and terrorism are inextricably linked," and went on to say: "Both require careful vigilance against organizations interested only in their personal gain, and willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent Americans to accomplish their objectives. Maintaining the National Guard's counter-drug efforts are a vital part of our fight against terrorism as well as drug trafficking."
Then they made their pitch. "It is our understanding that sufficient funding will not be made available [for] National Guard's requirements to continue their current level of operations," they explained. "To correct this shortfall, we urge you to direct that an additional $40,000,000" in defense counter-drug funds "be used only for National Guard Governor's State Plan funding requirements. Finally, we respectfully request that you include full funding to sustain this ongoing and successful program in future annual defense budget requests."
But with defense spending shooting through the roof and a seemingly endless "war against terror" looming, perhaps even Bush will have to begin to rethink priorities. After all, the Guardsman in looking in cars at Calexico or peering across the Rio Grande or peeking into containers in Miami is going to have to compete with anti-terror campaigns in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and any number of places at home and abroad. Suicide bombers who want to kill Americans may slowly but surely take precedence over limitless numbers of drug traffickers who would rather be left alone.