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

New York TimesAugust 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 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 in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of U.S. 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 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 Defense Department.

They also come a year before elections in both countries. President Barack Obama may face questions about the threat of violence spilling over the border. And Mexican President Felipe Calderon'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 U.S. 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."

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