U.S. Drones Fight Mexican Drug Trade

Stepping up its involvement in Mexico’s drug war, the Obama administration has begun sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence that helps locate major traffickers and follow their networks, according to American and Mexican officials.

The Pentagon began flying high-altitude, unarmed drones over Mexican skies last month, American military officials said, in hopes of collecting information to turn over to Mexican law enforcement agencies. Other administration officials said a Homeland Security drone helped Mexican authorities find several suspects linked to the Feb. 15 killing of Jaime Zapata, a United States Immigration and Customs EnforcementImmigration agent.

President Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, formally agreed to continue the surveillance flights during a White House meeting on March 3. The American assistance has been kept secret because of legal restrictions in Mexico and the heated political sensitivities there about sovereignty, the officials said.

Before the outbreak of drug violence in Mexico that has left more than 34,000 dead in the past four years, such an agreement would have been all but unthinkable, they said.

Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security and Mexican officials declined to comment publicly about the introduction of drones in Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts. But some officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said the move was evidence of the two countries’ deepening cooperation in efforts to prevail over a common threat.

In addition to expanding the use of drones, the two leaders agreed to open a counternarcotics “fusion” center, the second such facility in Mexico, where Mexican and American agencies would work together, the officials said.

In recent years, the United States has steadily stepped up its role in fighting Mexican drug trafficking, though officials offer few details of the cooperation. The greatest growth involves intelligence gathering, with Homeland Security and the American military flying manned aircraft and drones along the United States’ southern border — and now over Mexican territory — that are capable of peering deep into Mexico and tracking criminals’ communications and movements, officials said.

In addition, the United States trains thousands of Mexican troops and police officers, collaborates with specially vetted Mexican security units, conducts eavesdropping in Mexico and upgrades Mexican security equipment and intelligence technology, according to American law enforcement and intelligence officials.

“It wasn’t that long ago when there was no way the D.E.A. could conduct the kinds of activities they are doing now,” said Mike Vigil, a retired chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “And the only way they’re going to be able to keep doing them is by allowing Mexico to have plausible deniability.”

In addition to wariness by Mr. Calderón’s government about how the American intervention might be perceived at home, the Mexican Constitution prohibits foreign military and law enforcement agents from operating in Mexico except under extremely limited conditions, Mexican officials said, so the legal foundation for such activity may be shaky. In the United States, lawmakers have expressed doubts that Mexico, whose security agencies are rife with corruption, is a reliable partner.

Before Mr. Obama met with Mr. Calderón at the White House, diplomatic tensions threatened to weaken the cooperation between their governments. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks had reported criticism of the Mexican government by American diplomats, setting off a firestorm of resentment in Mexico. Then in February, outrage in Washington over Mr. Zapata’s murder prompted Mexican officials to complain that the United States government paid attention to drug violence only when it took the life of an American citizen.

In the end, however, mutual interests prevailed in the March 3 meeting after a frank exchange of grievances, Mexican and American officials said.

Mr. Calderón told Mr. Obama that his country had borne the brunt of a scourge driven by American guns and drug consumption, and urged the United States to do more to help. Mr. Obama, worried about Mexico falling into chaos and about violence spilling over the border, said his administration was eager to play a more central role, the officials said.

The leaders emphasized “the value of information sharing,” a senior Mexican official said, adding that they recognized “the responsibilities shared by both governments in the fight against criminal organizations on both sides of the border.”

A senior American administration official noted that all “counternarcotics activities were conducted at the request and direction of the Mexican government.”

Mr. Calderón is “intensely nationalistic, but he’s also very pragmatic,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “He’s not really a fan of the United States, but he knows he needs their help, so he’s willing to push the political boundaries.”

Mexican and American officials said that their cooperative efforts had been crucial to helping Mexico capture and kill at least 20 high-profile drug traffickers, including 12 in the last year alone. All those traffickers, Mexican officials said, had been apprehended thanks to intelligence provided by the United States.

Still, much of the cooperation is shrouded in secrecy. Mexican and American authorities, for example, initially denied that the first fusion center, established over a year ago in Mexico City, shared and analyzed intelligence. Some officials now say that Mexican and American law enforcement agencies work together around the clock, while others characterize it more as an operational outpost staffed almost entirely by Americans.

Mexican and American officials say Mexico turns a blind eye to American wiretapping of the telephone lines of drug-trafficking suspects, and similarly to American law enforcement officials carrying weapons in violation of longstanding Mexican restrictions.

Officials on both sides of the border also said that Mexico asked the United States to use its drones to help track suspects’ movements. The officials said that while Mexico had its own unmanned aerial vehicles, they did not have the range or high-resolution capabilities necessary for certain surveillance activities.

One American military official said the Pentagon had flown a number of flights over the past month using the Global Hawk drones — a spy plane that can fly higher than 60,000 feet and survey about 40,000 square miles of territory in a day. They cannot be readily seen by drug traffickers — or ordinary Mexicans — on the ground.

But no one would say exactly how many drone flights had been conducted by the United States, or how many were anticipated under the new agreement. The officials cited the secrecy of drug investigations, and concerns that airing such details might endanger American and Mexican officials on the ground.

Lt. Col. Robert L. Ditchey, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that “the Department of Defense, in coordination with the State Department, is working closely with the Mexican military and supports their efforts to counter transnational criminal organizations,” but did not comment specifically on the American drone flights.

Similarly, Matt Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman, said it would be “inappropriate to comment” on the use of drones in the Zapata case, citing the continuing investigation.

Though cooperation with Mexico had significantly improved, the officials said, it was still far from perfect. And American officials acknowledged there were still internal lapses of coordination, with the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration at times unaware of one another’s operations.

More than anything, though, officials expressed concern about reigniting longstanding Mexican concerns about the United States’ usurping Mexico’s authority.

“I think most Mexicans, especially in areas of conflict, would be fine about how much the United States is involved in the drug war, because things have gotten so scary they just want to see the bad guys get caught,” said Mr. Selee of the Wilson Center. “But the Mexican government is afraid of the more nationalistic elements in the political elite, so they tend to hide it.”

– Article orginaly published in The New York Times.

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