Ex-drug czar lauds EP plans for Bliss growth

Chris Roberts
El Paso Times
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

      El Paso is about to experience unprecedented growth because of new missions at Fort Bliss, but there could be other opportunities, including a Homeland Security "center of excellence" that would provide a border location for training personnel and testing new technology, former drug czar and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said Monday.

      McCaffrey, chairman of HNTB Federal Services, spoke Monday evening at the opening of the company's new El Paso office, which will employ about 50 people. Nationally, the company has more than 2,900 engineers and architects working on government contracts such as highway engineering and military facility design.

      "The community's done an incredibly good job of planning," McCaffrey said, referring to successful efforts to lobby the Pentagon for a Fort Bliss expansion. "They need resources and then they've got to build."

      With 10 percent of the active Army's fighting force -- nearly 25,000 soldiers -- scheduled to arrive at Fort Bliss during the next six years, McCaffrey said the El Paso community will see increased demands on education, health care, housing, transportation, recreation and retail.

      Federal and state government must support the needed expansion of infrastructure and other services and facilities in El Paso, he said.

      HNTB has contracts worth about $800 million with the Texas Department of Transportation for construction of 40 miles of the Border Highway and other roads in an effort to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 10, said Charlie Dodge, HNTB El Paso vice president and senior project manager.

      Earlier in the day, McCaffrey met with El Paso business leaders to advise them on contacts and approaches that will help the city make a case for the Homeland Security headquarters and other projects, said Bob Cook, interim director of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp.

      "I'm here because El Paso is the center of the universe when it comes to the United States/ Mexico border," McCaffrey said. He said he has been talking to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about creating a headquarters in El Paso that would unify the nation's approach to border security.

      McCaffrey said that when he was head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, he pushed to expand the Border Patrol to 45,000 officers, which would quadruple the current number, and to put the agency's headquarters in El Paso.

      He said a safe border can be created with a combination of immigration reform that would allow agriculture and construction workers to enter the country legally, and more agents with better weapons, technology and tactics to guard against drug smugglers, terrorists and other criminals.

      Of the recent incursion by smugglers armed with large- caliber weapons, Humvees and other military gear, McCaffrey said, "I doubt that was Mexican army. It's more likely criminals posing as Mexican army."

      "What we should do is signal without question that we will enforce the law," McCaffrey said. "Give the Border Patrol whatever tools they need to do the job."

      However, he said using U.S. military on the border is a bad idea because soldiers are trained for a different mission. He said Border Patrol agents are trained to "not just protect American citizens, but protect Mexican citizens as well."