Amid criticism of surveillance flights by U.S. drones over Mexico, a high-ranking U.S. military commander said Friday the United States is careful not to violate Mexican sovereignty as the two countries fight drug trafficking.
Adm. James Winnefeld, head of U.S. Northern Command, didn't specifically mention the drones, but he did refer to recent reports about "elements of U.S. support" for Mexico in the drug war.
Winnefeld wrote that the U.S. is eager to work with Mexico, but "the very first question we ask is whether or not it would infringe in any way on Mexico's sovereignty or rule of law. The answer, quite simply, must be 'no, it does not.'"
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been surreptitiously flying Predator drones into Mexico since 2009, but the practice didn't come to light until Wednesday. The border security agency's surveillance flights started before the occasional flights into Mexico by the U.S. Air Force's $38 million Global Hawk drone that began last month.
Some Mexican lawmakers were critical of the border agency flights, but Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa said the drone flights do not violate Mexico's sovereignty because they are "controlled" by Mexico and are unarmed.
Mexico's National Security Council said U.S. unmanned aircraft have been sent over Mexico on surveillance missions when requested by the Mexican government. A U.S. official told The Associated Press in Mexico City that during each mission, a Mexican official is present at the U.S. command center where a drone is remotely piloted.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Northern Command has a role in the flights. But Winnefeld has said Northern Command must help stop the flow of drugs, weapons and money between the two nations.
Northern Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., is responsible for the military defense of U.S. soil and supporting civilian agencies in natural or human-caused disasters.
On a separate note, Mexico's top diplomat is defending her government's decision to allow U.S. drones to fly over Mexican territory, while acknowledging that her country has disagreements and "moments of tension" with its northern neighbor.
Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa said the drone flights do not violate Mexico's sovereignty.
But she told Mexican senators Thursday the two countries "have disagreements, there are moments of tension."
The administration of President Felipe Calderon has expressed anger over comments by U.S. officials in leaked diplomatic cables criticizing the Mexican military and law enforcement agencies.
Mexico was also outraged by reports that U.S. agents allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico as part of investigations.