By Kimberly Dozier
Such assistance could help newly elected Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto establish a military force to focus on drug criminal networks that have terrorized Mexico's northern states and threatened the Southwest U.S. border.
Mexican officials say warring drug gangs killed at least 70,000 people between 2006 and 2012.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, said he worries that the planned aid to Mexico would continue a drug war he believes has been a failure and might have unintended consequences.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said such a program will make both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border safe and could possibly give Mexicans who have fled their country for safety concerns a chance to return home.
Based at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, Special Operations Command-North will build on a commando program that has brought Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement officials to study U.S. counterterrorist operations from the U.S. to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, to show them how special forces troops built an interagency network to target al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers.
The special operations team within Northcom will be turned into a new headquarters, led by a general instead of a colonel, and was established in a Dec. 31 memo signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That move gives the group more autonomy, and the number of people could eventually triple from 30 to 150, meaning the headquarters could expand its training missions with Mexican personnel, even though no new money is being assigned to the mission.The special operations program has already helped Mexican officials set up their own intelligence center in Mexico City to target criminal networks, patterned after similar centers in war zones built to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq, two current U.S. officials said.
Mexican and U.S. military officials played down the change, and it's unclear whether the Mexican government will agree to boost its training.
"We are merely placing a component commander in charge of things we are already doing," said Northcom spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis in a written statement.
Mexico's Foreign Affairs Department emailed a statement saying it had been briefed on the changes and had no further comment.
The creation of the new command is another expansion of Adm. Bill McRaven's special operations empire. The San Antonio native seeks to migrate special operators from their decade of service in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to new missions, even as the rest of the military fights post-war contraction and multi-billion-dollar budget cuts.
The new headquarters will also coordinate special operations troops when needed for domestic roles such as rescuing survivors after a natural disaster, or helping the U.S. Coast Guard strike ships carrying suspect cargo just outside U.S. territorial waters, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials briefed on the mission. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Pentagon has not formally announced the new headquarters.
The initial document petitioning Panetta for the command stresses the command's role in military-to-military cooperation with Mexico. The document was signed in September 2012 by McRaven and Northcom commander Gen. Charles Jacoby.
Northcom's current special operations training missions are an outgrowth of the Mérida Initiative, which was formalized in 2008, to provide extensive military assistance to Mexico. The extra special operations staff, including both troops and civilians, will help coordinate more missions as Mexico requests them, current and former officials said.
Peña Nieto is likely to welcome the continued training to help him build and coordinate the forces he needs to reduce drug violence, according to Rand Corp.'s Agnes Gereben Schaefer.
"He has talked about setting up a paramilitary force É made up of former military and police forces, which he has described as more surgical" than the current campaign by the Mexican army and police, Schaefer said. He would dispatch the force into towns that have been overrun by drug violence, where police don't have the numbers to fight it, she said.
O'Rourke, who has proposed legalizing marijuana as a way of de-funding cartels, is a skeptic of the Mérida Initiative and of the larger war on drugs.
"The war on drugs has been a failure, and I don't like the idea of committing more resources to it," he said Thursday from his Washington, D.C., office. "But I'd like to be briefed on (the new plan to assist Mexican authorities) before I make a decision about it."
O'Rourke is also concerned that the U.S. might share secret intelligence and techniques with the Mexican government, only to see them end up in the hands of the cartels.
"That would not be without precedent," he said.
Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement chiefs have already toured the Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg in North Carolina to see how U.S. officers coordinate efforts by special operations aircraft, naval vessels and air- and sea-based raiders, according to one current military official.
A small group of top Mexican military and intelligence officials also visited the command's targeting center at the Balad air base in Iraq before the U.S. troop withdrawal there in 2011, a former U.S. official said.
U.S. officials stress that sharing this expertise does not mean U.S. special operations teams will be conducting raids against targets in Mexico, nor will they be entering the country with their own weapons. Mexico forbids U.S. military or law enforcement officers to carry guns inside their borders, with few exceptions, though American commandos have conducted training missions in the past, two current and one former U.S. military official said. They were speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss such sensitive missions.