U.S., Mexico align against common foe: brutal narcotics trade

Vetted Mexican agents helped lead to the arrests of U.S.-based suppliers for La Familia, U.S. officials said.
Vetted Mexican agents helped lead to the arrests of U.S.-based suppliers for La Familia, U.S. officials said. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Sunday, November 22, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- To avenge the arrest of their leader, Mexican drug cartel commandos went on a rampage this summer across the lawless state of Michoacan, seizing 12 Mexican police officers and dumping their bound and stripped corpses in a pile beside a busy highway.

The slaughtered federal agents, it later emerged, had something in common: All had been vetted and trained by the U.S. government to work alongside its anti-narcotics agents. Officials said the American connection made them high-value targets for the cartels, which are lashing back ruthlessly against a military crackdown involving unprecedented cooperation between the two countries.

After decades of mistrust and sometimes betrayal, Mexican and U.S. authorities are increasingly setting aside their differences to unite against a common enemy. According to interviews in Washington and Mexico City, the two countries are sharing sensitive intelligence and computer technology, military hardware and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. know-how to train and vet Mexican agents. Police and soldiers secretly on the cartels' payroll have long poisoned efforts at cross-border cooperation against some of the world's most dangerous criminal organizations.

"The recognition by both sides, at the highest levels, that we have a shared responsibility for drug trafficking and serious crime in Mexico is a watershed change," said John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

The newly robust partnership is still risky, uneasy and freighted with old suspicions. U.S. law enforcement officials said it is being forged with the assurance by the U.S. State Department that Mexico's weak law enforcement agencies will overcome a history of incompetence and corruption, and that the closed ranks of the Mexican military, which operates with virtual impunity, can get past its hostility to outsiders.

U.S. officials also acknowledge that the growing cooperation is still a gamble. With their almost limitless resources, drug traffickers have corrupted top crime fighters in President Felipe Calderón's administration, including the head of the attorney general's organized-crime unit. A cartel spy penetrated the Interpol office here and claims to have worked inside the U.S. Embassy to steal secrets from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The new relationship goes well beyond, and builds upon, the Merida Initiative, the $1.4 billion U.S. anti-narcotics package to Mexico launched by the Bush administration. That three-year agreement includes the promise of Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and gamma-ray scanners to search for guns and cash at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But now, for the first time, the U.S. and Mexican armed forces regularly exchange classified intelligence in real time, often through Mexican officers embedded at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs and at an interagency task force in Key West, Fla. The task force, which is responsible for military satellite and maritime surveillance over the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, relays information to the Mexican navy and air force to interdict drugs moving north.

In addition, Mexican technicians are using U.S. government software to help build Platform Mexico, a computer network housed in a new five-story bunker at the edge of Mexico City. When the facility opens next week, the network will connect Mexican authorities with U.S. law enforcement databases. The most useful information, such as traces of weapons used in crimes, is being translated into Spanish.

"This is one of our most important reforms because if you don't have the intelligence, the information, you are just reacting. This will make us proactive," said José Francisco Niembro González, director of Platform Mexico.

While hardware and technology are important, senior officials in both governments describe the vetting program as the linchpin for their new levels of information sharing. Under an agreement with the Mexican government, U.S. agencies administer lie-detector tests and background checks for hundreds of Mexican agents now working with U.S. counterparts. These vetted units, which include elements in the Mexican military, are cleared to receive U.S. intelligence, including access to undercover agents and confidential informants.

The murder of the 12 agents in Michoacan represents the deadliest attack against the Mexican federal police in the modern era. The officers were ambushed just as they were about to launch an operation against a leader of La Familia, one of Mexico's newest and most violent drug mafias. Instead, in the middle of the night, 20 heavily armed men, dressed in stolen uniforms and impersonating federal officers, burst into their rented house and kidnapped them.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company