By Ginger Thompson
The New York Times
Mexican federal police agents training in Mexico City. The United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents.
The United States is expanding its role in Mexico’s bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new C.I.A. 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 C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of American contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.
The United States is assisting Mexican police forces in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects.
Officials on both sides of the border say the new efforts have been devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced American 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 Sarukhán, 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, when President Obama may confront questions about the threat of violence spilling over the border, and President Felipe Calderón’s political party faces a Mexican electorate that is almost certainly going to ask why it should stick with a fight that has left nearly 45,000 people dead.
“The pressure is going to be especially strong in Mexico, where I expect there will be a lot more raids, a lot more arrests and a lot more parading drug traffickers in front of cameras,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert at the Brookings Institution. “But I would also expect a lot of questioning of Merida, and some people asking about the way the money is spent, or demanding that the government send it back to the gringos.”
Mexico has become ground zero in the American counternarcotics fight since its cartels have cornered the market and are responsible for more than 80 percent of the drugs that enter the United States. American counternarcotics assistance there has grown faster in recent years than to Afghanistan and Colombia. And 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 American officials involved in the fight against organized crime do not see it that way. They say the efforts begun under President Obama are only a few years old, and that it is too soon for final judgments. Dan Restrepo, Mr. 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.”
A senior Mexican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed. “This is the game-changer in degrading transnational organized crime,” he said, adding: “It can’t be a two-, three-, four-, five- or six-year policy. For this policy investment to work, it has to be sustained long-term.”
Several Mexican and American security analysts compared the challenges of helping Mexico rebuild its security forces and civil institutions — crippled by more than seven decades under authoritarian rule — to similar tests in Afghanistan. They see the United States fighting alongside a partner it needs but does not completely trust.
Though the new United States ambassador to Mexico was plucked from an assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Obama administration bristles at such comparisons, saying Mexico’s growing economy and functioning, though fragile, institutions put it far ahead of Afghanistan. Instead, administration officials more frequently compare Mexico’s struggle to the one Colombia began some 15 years ago.
Among the most important lessons they have learned, they say, is that in almost any fight against organized crime, things tend to get worse before they get better.
When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Mr. Calderón’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.
American officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the American team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.
But the officials said the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.
“The Mexicans are in charge," said one American military official. “It’s their show. We’re all about technical support.”
The two countries have worked in lock step on numerous high-profile operations, including the continuing investigation of the February murder of Jaime J. Zapata, an American Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
Mexico’s federal police chief, Genaro García Luna, put a helicopter in the air within five minutes after receiving a call for help from Mr. Zapata’s partner, the authorities said. Then he invited American officials to the police intelligence center — an underground location known as “the bunker” — to work directly with Mexican security forces in tracking down the suspects.
Mexican officials hand-carried shell casings recovered from the scene of the shooting to Washington for forensics tests, allowed American officials to conduct their own autopsy of the agent’s body and shipped the agent’s bullet-battered car to the United States for inspection.
In another operation last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration and a Mexican counternarcotics police unit collaborated on an operation that led to the arrest of José Antonio Hernández Acosta, a suspected drug trafficker. The authorities believe he is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, including the murders of two Americans employed at the United States Consulate there.
While D.E.A. field officers were not on the scene — the Mexicans still draw the line at that — the Americans helped develop tips and were in contact with the Mexican unit almost every minute of the five-hour manhunt, according to a senior American official in Mexico. The unit, of about 50 officers, is the focus of another potentially ground-breaking plan that has not yet won approval. Several former D.E.A. officials said the two countries were considering a proposal to embed a group of private security contractors — including retired D.E.A. agents and former Special Forces officers — inside the unit to conduct an on-the-job training academy that would offer guidance in conducting operations so that suspects can be successfully taken to court. Mexican prosecutors would also work with the unit, the Americans said.
But a former American law enforcement official familiar with the unit described it as one good apple in a barrel of bad ones. He said it was based on a compound with dozens of other nonvetted officers, who provided a window on the challenges that the Mexican police continue to face.
Some of the officers had not been issued weapons, and those who had guns had not been properly trained to use them. They were required to pay for their helmets and bulletproof vests out of their own pockets. And during an intense gun battle against one of Mexico’s most vicious cartels, they had to communicate with one another on their cellphones because they had not been issued police radios. “It’s sort of shocking,” said Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Mexico is just now learning how to fight crime in the midst of a major crime wave. It’s like trying to saddle your horse while running the Kentucky Derby.”