Obama approved an intensification of bilateral measures. Deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan, also in charge of counterterrorism operations focused on al-Qaeda, led the U.S. side. His Mexican partner was CISEN director Valdes.
“We got people together to define the operations,” Valdes said in an interview here. Every new program was vetted by Mexico’s security team and often by Calderon. The day-to-day operations were conceived in Mexico and approved by the U.S. ambassador at the time, Carlos Pascual, and the specific Mexican agency head involved.
The first important decision was to use the same “high-value target” strategy that had been so successful against al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. authorities used real-time intelligence against kingpins on a Mexican-U.S. priority list — including cellphone geolocation, wiretaps, electronic intercepts and tracking of digital records — to help Mexican authorities target them.
The second was to clean up the Mexican units that would be responsible for carrying out raids.
As early as 1997, the DEA had funded the creation of Sensitive Investigative Units (SIU) made up of foreign nationals, first in Colombia, then in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico, and eventually in nine other countries. By mid-2006, the DEA had two units with a total of 184 members in Mexico alone, according to a DEA inspector general’s report. The Mexicans were brought for training to the DEA’s facility at Quantico.
Mexico does not allow U.S. agents to take part in the actual raids, but they can be involved in planning operations and can even direct them remotely.
The CIA also has trained units in raid tactics, protection of senior officials, intelligence collecting and, in a departure for the spy agency, in gathering and preserving evidence that can be used in court.
To guard against penetration from the cartels, members were polygraphed, drug-tested and vetted for criminal and financial irregularities. But operations were still routinely exposed by moles inserted by the cartels. So, beginning in 2009, the size of the units was cut significantly. Those who remained worked under cover and lived in secret safe houses. The U.S. agencies they worked with provided special cellphones and even paid their salaries and set up their bank accounts. There are now six or seven SIUs in Mexico, sponsored by the DEA, CIA and at least one other U.S. law enforcement agency.
The two countries also have constructed an elaborate physical infrastructure and developed protocols for sharing sensitive, often real-time intelligence. Garza, the former U.S. ambassador, called it “the plumbing” of the security relationship.
“We started to appreciate that the same sort of plumbing construction for counterterrorism naturally translated into other security cooperation,” he said.