That first flight dispelled Mexican fears that U.S. authorities would try to take control of drone operations. An agreement was reached that would temporarily give operational control to Mexican authorities during such flights. U.S. pilots sitting in the States would control the planes remotely, but a Mexican military or federal police commander would be able to direct the pilot within the boundaries of a Mexico-designated grid.
By late 2010, drones were flying deeper into Mexico to spy on the cartels, as they did during the two-day gun battle involving 800 federal police that resulted in the death of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, head of the ultra-violent La Familia Michoacana cartel.
By then, Mexican authorities had grown so enamored with drones that they were requesting more flights than the United States could deliver, given that most of the aircraft were being used to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. So Mexican authorities bought their own drones. The first public indication of this development came when one crashed in El Paso in December 2010.
“Eventually, when they got better at using their own, they would fly more missions than we would,” said one former law enforcement official involved in drone operations.
Mexico’s new approach
Four months and many conversations after the Dec. 15 meeting, the new Mexican government is still fleshing out the details of its counterdrug approach.
In a visit to Washington two weeks ago, Mexico’s top security team shared the broad outlines of the plan with U.S. agencies, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. It contains many changes.
The president will not be nearly as directly involved in counterdrug efforts as Calderon was, the officials said. The interior minister will coordinate the relationships between various Mexican and U.S. agencies and other Mexican units. The director of the Mexican intelligence agency will decide which Mexican agency should receive and act on sensitive U.S. information.
Given the corruption of Mexican law enforcement and armed forces, U.S. officials said privately they would be unwilling to share sensitive information until they have vetted the people involved and understand how their information is to be protected.
The Mexican government also plans to create five regional intelligence fusion centers, staffed with federal and state officials, and to build a 10,000-member super police force. This force would be steeped in military discipline but would use police tactics, rather than overwhelming military force, to keep violence to a minimum.
Medina Mora, the Mexican ambassador, said in an interview that his nation considers U.S. help in the drug war “a centerpiece” of Mexico’s counternarcotics strategy. But the Mexican delegation in Washington also informed U.S. authorities that Americans will no longer be allowed to work inside any fusion center, including the one in Monterrey. The DEA agents and retired military contractors there will have to go.
Several senior U.S. officials say U.S. agencies stand ready to help in any way the new administration allows.
They anxiously await further details.
Julie Tate in Washington and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.