A Mexican Federal Police agent patrols the streets of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico during an anti-narcotic operation on March 5, 2009. Homes are being invaded by gunmen, people raped and tortured, and bodies dumped in the Arizona desert as violence from the Mexican drug wars spills into the American Southwest. Illegal immigration and drug smuggling have always been issues in this border state, but warring Mexican cartels are carrying violence to levels that have shocked law enforcement and government officials.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration sought to quiet mounting anxiety about Mexican drug violence and border spillover when it named the nation’s next Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, police chief in Seattle on March 11. The position, the Vice President noted, will no longer be considered a cabinet-level office.

The Vice President Biden used the opportunity to offer the most extensive White House comments thus far on the Mexico situation.

The challenges facing the Chief are going to be daunting. Nowhere is that more true than in the southwest border today. All you have to do is pick up your paper anywhere in the nation, national and local — since the beginning of last year there have been nearly 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico. If we had said that years ago we would have looked at each other like we were crazy — but 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico. Violent drug trafficking organizations are threatening both the United States and Mexican communities.

And as drug czar the Chief will play a central role in developing and implementing a southwest border strategy — one that improves information sharing, harnesses the power of new technologies, strengthens federal, state and local law enforcement efforts against violent criminals, and increases the interdiction of both drugs coming into the United States and weapons and cash flowing out of the United States into Mexico. It’s a strategy that we need to bring in order to bring the situation under control, to protect our people, and to bring about the demise of the Mexican drug cartels.

And by the way, we’ve done this before. We did it in Cartagena — I mean, excuse me, not Cartagena, we did it in Colombia, in Medellin [sic]. We’ve done it before with the help. We’ve been involved in this. So I don’t want people throwing up their hands and saying, there’s nothing we can do about this. We can — with a coordinated and consistent effort.

Reading between the lines, it appears the Vice President called for a concerted effort against the drug cartels resembling Plan Colombia, which Congress is ramping down. On the other hand, the Vice President missed a chance to plug the critical Merida Initiative, a 3-year, $1.5 billion anti-drug program with Mexico. In fact it is impossible to find any mention of the Merida Initiative on the White House web page or in White House statements.

President Obama meanwhile has left Americans guessing whether or not he favors sending the National Guard or other troops to the border. “We’re going to examine,” said the President, “whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense. I don’t,” he added, “have a particular tipping point in mind,” he said. “I think it’s unacceptable if you’ve got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens.”

But as Heritage’s Jim Carafano has argued, sending the military in to do law enforcements job is not particularly sound policy. “Cooperative initiatives like these are much more efficient and enduring countermeasures. Sending brigades of our already over-stretched military to the border would doubtless grab a few headlines, but it’s a less-than optimum strategy for winning the long war on our border.

Seemingly aware of the problems along the Mexican border, the White House elects to lower the profile and access of the Drug Czar, wrestles with sending in the military, and misses an opportunity to promote the flagship cooperation program with Mexico. Not an auspicious start against a serious national security challenge.