In 2000, a political earthquake in Mexico paved the way for a less suspicious era between the two neighbors. The 71-year political reign of the authoritarian and corrupt PRI ended with the election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party as president. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States turned the new openness into unprecedented bilateral action against terrorism.
The two countries fortified the border with personnel and surveillance technology. Eventually, a protocol was worked out for Mexico to stop, detain and interrogate non-Mexicans traveling north toward the United States. Mexican authorities allow U.S. officials to remotely question third-country nationals of concern to the United States, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.
Clamping down on illegal border crossings, however, had an unintended consequence: It upset agreements among the cartels over smuggling routes, sparking yet more violent competition.
By the time Calderon was inaugurated in late 2006, many experts believed that Mexico was losing control of parts of the country. Even before his inauguration, Calderon pleaded with President George W. Bush to help the Mexican military quash the cartels, according to Antonio Garza, then U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who attended a meeting between the presidents.
Bush agreed to help, and the Merida Initiative, a $1.9 billion aid package for military training and equipment and judicial reform, set the framework for a new level of U.S.-Mexican cooperation. In a little-noticed move, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence took a leading role in the U.S. effort to defeat the cartels, signaling the importance of intelligence in combating organized crime.
By then, cartels had begun employing assassination squads, according to Guillermo Valdes, who was CISEN director at the time. CISEN discovered from a captured videotape and a special analytical group it set up that some of the cartels had hired former members of the U.S.-trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, to create sociopathic killers who could behead a man, torture a child or immerse a captive in a vat of acid.
Anxious to counterattack, the CIA proposed electronically emptying the bank accounts of drug kingpins, but was turned down by the Treasury Department and the White House, which feared unleashing chaos in the banking system.
As the Mexican death toll mounted, Calderon pleaded with Bush for armed drones. He had been impressed by the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, two former U.S. officials said. The White House considered the request, but quickly rejected it. It was far too likely to result in collateral damage, they said.