Franc Contreras / Al Jazeera & Ginger Thompson / New York Times – 2011-10-27 23:54:53
Reported US Role Fuels Mexican Concern
Franc Contreras / Al Jazeera
MEXICO CITY, Mexico (October 27, 2011) — Mexican officials are trying to calm concerns over reported US infringement of its southern neighbor’s sovereignty. According to a New York Times report [See below], US intelligence agents are operating in Mexico more than ever before to infiltrate drug cartels in Mexico. The newspaper cited security officials who said US unmanned surveillance planes and sophisticated human-intelligence gathering systems have helped Mexican authorities to kill or capture dozens of other prominent suspects involved in the drug war.
US Expands its Role in Mexico’s Drug War
Contractors, CIA operatives skirt ban on foreign military presence
Ginger Thompson / New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON (August 7. 2011) — The United States is expanding its role in Mexico’s bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new CIA operatives and retired military personnel to the country, and considering plans to deploy private security contractors in hopes of turning around a multibillion-dollar effort that so far has shown few results.
In recent weeks, small numbers of CIA operatives and US civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries are working side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of US contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.
Officials on both sides of the border said the new efforts have been designed to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced US surveillance technology from falling under the control of Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption.
“A sea change has occurred over the past years in how effective Mexico and US intelligence exchanges have become,” said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States. “It is underpinned by the understanding that transnational organized crime can only be successfully confronted by working hand in hand, and that the outcome is as simple as it is compelling: we will together succeed or together fail.”
The latest steps come three years after the United States began increasing its security assistance to Mexico with the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative and tens of millions of dollars from the Defense Department. They also come a year before elections in both countries, when President Barack Obama may face questions about the threat of violence spilling over the border, and Mexican President Felipe CalderÃ³n’s political party faces an electorate that is almost certainly going to ask why it should stick with a fight that has left nearly 45,000 people dead.
In the last three years, officials said, exchanges of intelligence between the United States and Mexico have helped security forces there capture or kill some 30 mid- to high-level drug traffickers, compared with just two such arrests in the previous five years.
The United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents and assisted in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects. The Pentagon has provided sophisticated equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, and in recent months it has begun flying unarmed surveillance drones over Mexican soil to track drug kingpins.
Still, it is hard to say much real progress has been made in crippling the brutal cartels or stemming the flow of drugs and guns across the border. Mexico’s justice system remains so weakened by corruption that even the most notorious criminals have not been successfully prosecuted.
“The government has argued that the number of deaths in Mexico is proof positive that the strategy is working and that the cartels are being weakened,” said Nik Steinberg, a specialist on Mexico at Human Rights Watch. “But the data is indisputable — the violence is increasing, human rights abuses have skyrocketed, and accountability both for officials who commit abuses and alleged criminals is at rock bottom.”
Mexican and US officials involved in the fight against organized crime do not see it that way. They say the efforts begun under Obama are only a few years old, and that it is too soon for final judgments. Dan Restrepo, Obama’s senior Latin American adviser, refused to talk about operational changes in the security relationship, but said, “I think we are in a fundamentally different place than we were three years ago.”
When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Calderon’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.
US officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the US team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, CIA officials and retired military personnel from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.
But the officials said that the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.
“The Mexicans are in charge,” said one US military official. “It’s their show. We’re all about technical support.”
The two countries have worked in lock step on numerous high-profile operations, including the investigation of the murder of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent named Jaime Zapata.
In another operation last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration and a Mexican counternarcotics police unit collaborated on an operation that led to the arrest of a suspected drug trafficker named Jose Antonio Hernandez Acosta. The authorities believe he is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, including the murders of two Americans employed at the US Consulate there.
While DEA field officers were not on the scene — the Mexicans still draw the line at that — the Americans helped develop tips and were in contact with the Mexican unit almost every step of the five-hour manhunt, according to a senior US official in Mexico. The unit, of about 50 officers, is the focus of another potentially ground-breaking plan that has not yet won approval.
Several former DEA officials said the two countries were considering a proposal to embed a group of private security contractors — including retired DEA agents and former Special Forces officers — inside the unit to conduct an on-the-job training academy that would offer guidance in conducting operations so that suspects can be successfully taken to court. Mexican prosecutors would also work with the unit, the Americans said.
But a former US law enforcement official familiar with the unit described it as one good apple in a barrel of bad ones. He said it was based on a compound with dozens of other nonvetted officers, who provided a window on the challenges that average Mexican police continue to face.
Some of the officers had not been issued weapons, and those who had guns had not been properly trained to use them. They were required to pay for their helmets and bulletproof vests out of their own pockets. And during an intense gun battle against one of Mexico’s most vicious cartels, they had to communicate with one another on their cellphones because they had not been issued police radios.
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. (c) 2011
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