THE WASHINGTON POST
To avenge the arrest of their leader, Mexican drug cartel commandos went on a rampage this summer across the lawless state of Michoacan, abducting 12 Mexican police officers and dumping their stripped corpses in a pile beside a busy highway.
The slain federal officers, it later emerged, had something in common: All had been vetted and trained by the U.S. government to work alongside its anti-narcotics agents.
Officials said the U.S. connection made them high-value targets for the cartels, who are fighting back against a military crackdown involving unprecedented cooperation between the two countries.
After decades of mistrust, Mexican and U.S. authorities are increasingly setting aside their differences to unite against a common enemy.
According to interviews in Washington and Mexico City, the two countries are sharing sensitive intelligence, technology, military hardware and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. know-how to train and vet Mexican agents.
Police and soldiers secretly on the cartels' payroll have long poisoned efforts at cross-border cooperation against the criminal organizations.
"The recognition by both sides, at the highest levels, that we have a shared responsibility for drug trafficking and serious crime in Mexico is a watershed change," said John Feeley, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
The partnership is still risky, uneasy and freighted with old suspicions. U.S. officials acknowledge that the growing cooperation is a gamble. With their vast resources, drug traffickers have corrupted top crime fighters in President Felipe Calderon's administration, including the head of the attorney general's organized crime unit.
Under an agreement with the Mexican government, U.S. agencies administer lie-detector tests and background checks for hundreds of Mexican agents now working with U.S. counterparts. These vetted units, which include elements in the Mexican military, are cleared to receive U.S. intelligence.
Last month, vetted Mexican agents provided information that helped lead to the arrest of more than 300 U.S.-based suppliers for the drug gang La Familia, U.S. officials said.
"I would take an oath in court that those vetted units have been the key to a number of arrests in Mexico and the United States," said Anthony Placido, the DEA director of intelligence. "What it's basically enabled us to do is play Ping-Pong: They share information with us, we share it with them, and we all use it to make cases. We arrest people and flip them, and then pass information down to them."
Prosecutors say that Mexican traffickers fear life sentences in U.S. prisons more than death.
Mexican authorities are now arresting their own citizens in drug trafficking cases developed by the U.S. Justice Department and transferring defendants north for trial -- which would have been seen as an unthinkable breach of Mexican sovereignty just a few years ago. Mexico has extradited a record 284 defendants for prosecution in the United States over the past three years, fulfilling a treaty obligation that was ignored until Calderón took office in December 2006.
The reputed leader of the Gulf cartel, Osiel Cárdenas, was flown to Houston in shackles in 2007. This summer his trial was abruptly cancelled without explanation, as rumors swirl that Cárdenas, known as "the Killer of Friends," cut a deal with the DEA to provide information.
As the drug wars rage, leaving more than 16,000 dead in three years, the United States and Mexico are desperate to get more federal agents on the streets. By spring, the two governments hope to graduate more than 10,000 cadets from a new U.S.-funded training academy in San Luis Potosi.
The cadets are required to complete a seven-week crash course in basic detective work taught by instructors from the United States, Canada and Colombia working alongside Mexican agents.
The academy recruits college graduates, and classrooms and firing ranges on the manicured campus are filled with young lawyers, engineers, biochemists and computer scientists who study a curriculum developed by retired FBI agents and taught by active-duty officers borrowed from the Secret Service, DEA, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"Our new training will create a new, better federal police force with new values," said Mauricio Sanchez Rincon, 23, who has a college degree in computer science and is one of the 3,259 fresh-faced cadets. "Those values are discipline, respect, and honesty. That's going to be important in convincing people they can have faith in us, that they can approach us and not be afraid."
U.S. and Mexican officials trace the change in the relationship to Calderón, who put the Mexican army in charge of fighting the drug war and approached the Bush administration with the proposal for a partnership that became the Merida Initiative.
For the first time, the Mexican navy participated in joint military exercises with the United States earlier this year. Frank Mora, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemispheric affairs, said the military-to-military cooperation has expanded to include counternarcotics, intelligence analysis and helicopter pilot training.
"It's not just the Mexicans needing us," he said. "It is us needing the Mexicans."