Saturday, August 6, 2011

U.S. deepening its role in Mexico's drug war

By Ginger Thompson 
— The United States is expanding its role in Mexico's bloody fight against drug cartels, sending new CIA operatives and retired military personnel to the country and considering plans to deploy private security contractors with Mexican police 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 U.S. 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 collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations.

Officials are looking into embedding a team of U.S. contractors — including retired Drug Enforcement Administration agents and former Special Forces officers — in a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.

Officials on both sides of the border said the efforts have been designed to get around Mexico's laws that bar foreign military and police from operating on its soil and to prevent advanced U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Pentagon. They also come a year before elections in both nations, when President Barack Obama may face questions about the threat of violence spilling over the border, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón's 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.

"The pressure is going to be especially strong in Mexico, where I expect there will be a lot more raids, a lot more arrests and a lot more parading drug traffickers in front of cameras," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert at the Brookings Institution. "But I would also expect a lot of questioning of Merida, and some people asking about the way the money is spent or demanding that the government send it back to the gringos."

In the past three years, officials said, exchanges of intelligence between the United States and Mexico have helped security forces there capture or kill about 30 mid- to high-level drug traffickers, compared with just two such arrests in the preceding five years.

The U.S. 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 started flying unarmed surveillance drones over Mexico to track drug kingpins.

Still, it is hard to say much progress has been made in crippling the 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 haven't 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."

When violence spiked last year around the city of Monterrey, Calderón's government asked the U.S. for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the U.S.
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.

U.S. officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the U.S. team of fewer than two dozen DEA 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 was modeled after "fusion intelligence centers" that the U.S. 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 U.S. military official. "It's their show. We're all about technical support."