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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)
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The Mexican agents were betrayed by local residents and captured by the trafficker they sought, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez-Martinez, who then ordered the 12 officers executed, according to an account given to The Washington Post by Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, a top official in the federal police who commanded the slain agents.

These were not the first federal police officers vetted by the United States to have been assassinated by traffickers, said a U.S. source familiar with the program. But U.S. and Mexican officials remain convinced of its effectiveness.

Last month, vetted Mexican agents provided information that helped lead to the arrest of more than 300 U.S.-based suppliers for La Familia, according to U.S. officials.

"I would take an oath in court that those vetted units have been the key to a number of arrests in Mexico and the United States," said Anthony Placido, the DEA's chief of intelligence. "What it's basically enabled us to do is play Ping-Pong: They share information with us, we share it with them, and we all use it to make cases. We arrest people and flip them, and then pass information down to them."

Prosecutors say that Mexican traffickers fear life sentences in U.S. prisons more than death.

Mexican authorities are now arresting their own citizens in drug trafficking cases developed by the U.S. Justice Department and transferring defendants north for trial -- which would have been seen as an unthinkable breach of Mexican sovereignty just a few years ago. Mexico has extradited a record 284 defendants for prosecution in the United States over the past three years, fulfilling a treaty obligation that was ignored until Calderón took office in December 2006.

The reputed leader of the Gulf cartel, Osiel Cárdenas, was flown to Houston in shackles in 2007. This summer his trial was abruptly cancelled without explanation, as rumors swirl that Cárdenas, known as "the Killer of Friends," cut a deal with the DEA to provide information.

As the drug wars rage, leaving more than 16,000 dead in three years, the United States and Mexico are desperate to get more federal agents on the streets. By spring, the two governments hope to graduate more than 10,000 cadets from a new U.S.-funded training academy in San Luis Potosi.

The cadets are required to complete a seven-week crash course in basic detective work taught by instructors from the United States, Canada and Colombia working alongside Mexican agents.

The academy recruits college graduates, and classrooms and firing ranges on the manicured campus are filled with young lawyers, engineers, biochemists and computer scientists who study a curriculum developed by retired FBI agents and taught by active-duty officers borrowed from the Secret Service, DEA, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Our new training will create a new, better federal police force with new values," said Mauricio Sanchez Rincon, 23, who has a college degree in computer science and is one of the 3,259 fresh-faced cadets. "Those values are discipline, respect, and honesty. That's going to be important in convincing people they can have faith in us, that they can approach us and not be afraid."

U.S. and Mexican officials trace the change in the relationship to Calderón, who put the Mexican army in charge of fighting the drug war and approached the Bush administration with the proposal for a partnership that became the Merida Initiative.

For the first time, the Mexican navy participated in joint military exercises with the United States earlier this year. Frank Mora, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemispheric affairs, said the military-to-military cooperation has expanded to include counternarcotics, intelligence analysis and helicopter pilot training.

"It's not just the Mexicans needing us," he said. "It is us needing the Mexicans."

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