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U.S.-Mexico drug war partnership under Calderon broke new ground

The president, who steps down Saturday, essentially rewrote the rules under which foreign countries can intervene in Mexico.

November 28, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson, Richard Fausset and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • Truckloads of Mexican federal police ride through Matamoros. A corps of specially vetted federal units, as well as Mexican naval special forces, has proved most ready to put aside anti-U.S. sentiment to work closely with American trainers in combating the nation's drug cartels.
Truckloads of Mexican federal police ride through Matamoros. A corps of… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

MEXICO CITY — In the six years of outgoing President Felipe Calderon's war against drug gangs, the U.S. became a principal player in Mexico, sending drones and sniffer dogs, police trainers and intelligence agents to a country long suspicious of its powerful neighbor.

Calderon, who steps down Saturday, essentially rewrote the rules under which foreign forces could act here in matters of national security. There has been relatively little public protest, reflecting the severity of a conflict that has killed tens of thousands nationwide and spread violence south into Central America — without significantly reducing the flow of drugs.

Incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party long embodied a vocal Mexican nationalism, has said he wants to maintain cooperation with the United States at a high level, although he is suggesting some policy shifts.

FULL COVERAGE: Mexico Under Siege

U.S. intelligence has led to some of Calderon's biggest successes, the killing or arrest of several key drug capos. At a more modest level, U.S. trainers are teaching Mexico's notoriously corrupt police how to fill out reports and collect evidence. American military officers sit side by side with Mexican navy counterparts planning and monitoring operations from classified centers.

But the United States also has at times been sucked into relationships with security agencies that have been accused of serious human rights abuses. A number of embarrassments, including the shooting by Mexican police of CIA operatives and a fatal attack on civilians by Honduras forces aided by U.S. agents, have highlighted some of the failings of the multibillion-dollar effort. In both cases, local forces involved had received U.S. money, vetting and training.

The military, once one of Mexico's respected institutions, has committed numerous abuses, including torturing detainees and killing innocent people.

Overall, however, officials and experts on both sides praise the cooperation.

"The relationship [with Mexico] is at an all-time high," a top U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico said in an interview. "There is a partnership across the board, and it is extremely effective."

"It is huge," said a senior U.S. military officer based until recently in Mexico. "I've seen a sea change in just the last three years, more or less."

Since Calderon took office six years ago, Washington has pumped more than $2 billion into Mexico's drug war and discreetly deployed hundreds of operatives from the CIA, the Treasury and Justice departments and the FBI, as well as retired cops and judges.

They have spilled over from the U.S. Embassy building on Mexico City's graceful Reforma Boulevard to the 21st floor of a glass-sheathed high-rise a block away. The so-called Bilateral Implementation Office is a tidy, carpeted nest of cubicles and meeting rooms with pea-green walls that the Mexican newsweekly Proceso recently put on its cover and branded as an "espionage center."

As Calderon's forces have worked with the Americans to take on the powerful Sinaloa, Gulf and Zeta cartels, among others, many of these have moved steadily into Central America, an area historically more susceptible to U.S. intervention. That has prompted the United States to expand its presence there as well.

In Mexico, the U.S. expansion represents a cultural shift. History is replete with U.S. meddling. Mexican law, rhetoric and sentiment have long rejected any hint of foreign interference.

Calderon's strategy had been widely criticized at home, but more for how he has executed it. The drug war has left an enormous toll of dead, abused and missing, even while cartel dominance has extended to wide swaths of Mexican territory.

The public acceptance of U.S. involvement in the crackdown is largely the result of awareness of how dire the threat from cartels is, and how ill-equipped Mexican forces are to fight them.

"Mexican political culture has changed in recent decades," said Eduardo Guerrero, a security expert at a Mexico City consulting firm. "Especially with the free-trade agreement, we see the U.S. as more of a partner."

Guerrero said U.S. intelligence was a game-changer in the drug war. "The American intelligence systems are simply more potent than the Mexican ones," he said.

Mexican naval special forces and a corps of specially vetted federal police units have proved most ready to put aside anti-U.S. sentiment to work closely with the Americans. Other organizations, like the hidebound, top-heavy army, have been slower to come around, say current and former U.S. officials and Mexican analysts.

U.S. officials have had to adjust as well, overcoming deep mistrust of their Mexican partners to focus on those vetted units and consult regularly with Calderon's security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna.

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