washingtonpost.com
U.S. to embed agents in Mexican law enforcement units battling cartels in Juarez

By William Booth
washington post foreign service
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; A01

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- For the first time, U.S. officials plan to embed American intelligence agents in Mexican law enforcement units to help pursue drug cartel leaders and their hit men operating in the most violent city in Mexico, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

The increasingly close partnership between the two countries, born of frustration over the exploding death toll in Ciudad Juarez, would place U.S. agents and analysts in a Mexican command center in this border city to share drug intelligence gathered from informants and intercepted communications.

Until recently, U.S. law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to share sensitive intelligence with their Mexican counterparts for fear they were either corrupt or incompetent. And U.S. agents have been wary of operating inside Mexican command centers for fear they would be targeted for execution in the sensational violence and lawlessness in Ciudad Juarez that left more than 2,600 people dead last year.

But those attitudes are changing amid strong support from Washington for President Felipe Calderón's war against the cartels, including a $1.4 billion aid package. The Obama administration views spiking drug violence in Mexico as a direct threat to U.S. security and has taken unprecedented steps toward on-the-ground cooperation with Mexican authorities. It is seeking an additional $310 million for drug enforcement aid for Mexico in its 2011 budget.

Under the new arrangement, U.S. law enforcement officers, most likely from an agency such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, would work alongside recent graduates of the new Mexican federal police academy who were trained by FBI and DEA advisers as part of the U.S. aid package.

In another departure from past practice, vetted federal police agents from Mexico might gain greater access to drug intelligence centers in the United States.

"The idea is to take our full technological and human capabilities and put them at the service of a willing partner to address what is a crisis situation," said a senior U.S. official in Mexico who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a bilateral meeting on the arrangement -- which does not require congressional approval -- is scheduled this week.

The actions come as Calderón faces mounting criticism for his failure to demonstrate progress in the battle for Ciudad Juarez, a gritty industrial town across the border from El Paso that has become one of the most dangerous places in the world despite the presence of 10,000 soldiers and police officers.

Although Mexican authorities have for months said they were working on a new strategy to confront the violence in Ciudad Juarez, they have little to show for their efforts.

The federal attorney general's office in Ciudad Juarez has prosecuted one case of organized crime. Of the 2,670 homicides recorded here last year, state prosecutors have mounted 37 murder cases.

"Few of these will ever go to trial," said Jorge González, head of the state public defender's office in Juarez.

As an example, González said that although state prosecutors trumpeted the August arrest of four men they said were assassins responsible for 211 killings, no formal charges have been brought against the suspects, who allegedly work for La Linea, a group composed of former police now employed by the Juarez drug cartel.

"It's all for show," González said, "all for the cameras."

'A horrible error'

A massacre of 15 people last month, including 10 teenagers attending a birthday celebration, may have been a watershed event -- at least politically.

After blocking off the streets, more than a dozen gunmen burst into the party and went on a rampage. Several of the dead were well-known football players at a local high school. After the massacre, Calderón enraged residents by suggesting that the young victims may have been involved with drugs and were possibly killed by rival gangs.

Calderón and his supporters point out that most of the more than 17,000 people killed in the country's drug war have been narcotics traffickers and other criminals -- though the Security Commission of the Mexican Senate reports that among the dead are 620 women, 1,500 police officers and 87 soldiers.

"It was a horrible error and an insult to these kids and their families, because it was absolutely clear that the vast majority of them were just kids in high school and junior high, athletes, what we would call 'normal kids,' " said José Luis Piñeyro, a military analyst in Mexico City who frequently writes about the drug war.

Though Ciudad Juarez is the front line of his fight against the cartels, Calderón has been an infrequent visitor -- what one U.S. official called "an absentee president." But after the students were killed, Calderón traveled to Juarez twice in less than a week.

At an appearance during his first visit, as he sat beside his wife on a low stage, the mother of two slain teenagers confronted him directly. "I bet that if they had killed your children, you would have looked under every rock to find the killers. But I don't have the resources that you do," Luz María Dávila told Calderón.

A city withering away

Since his inauguration three years ago, Calderón has pursued a U.S.-backed strategy of relying on the Mexican military to confront the cartels fighting for dominance in the billion-dollar corridors to the U.S. drug market. The Mexican troops, who lack law enforcement training or investigative abilities, have made record numbers of arrests, but few of the detained have gone to trial. Instead, the military has been accused of human rights abuses -- coerced confessions, illegal detention, unlawful searches.

"This is an enormous mess. It is now starting to hurt Calderón politically. He cannot point to any success. And he is running out of time," said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister and now a professor at New York University.

According to U.S. and Mexican officials, the municipal police cannot be trusted, nor can they operate on their own. One U.S. official said a local police chief was caught briefing his cartel bosses via cellphone immediately after planning sessions.

Ciudad Juarez is withering away from violence. The local newspaper El Diario reported last week that more than 2,500 small grocery stores have been shuttered because of extortion attempts or because the city is emptying of residents. The Mexican social security administration says 75,000 people have lost their jobs since 2007, according to a report in the El Paso Times. Analysts estimate that as many as 200,000 people may have fled the city for other parts of Mexico or the United States.

In his visits to Ciudad Juarez, Calderón and his cabinet promised the equivalent of a social surge -- a rapid injection of $50 million to build schools, parks, day-care centers and a sports field to be named after the student victims.

U.S. officials in Mexico say the new Calderón plan, dubbed "We Are All Juarez," will pull the military away from its controversial patrols through the city, replacing troops with federal police supported by several hundred of the newly U.S.-trained investigators from the police academy.

But it is still uncertain what new strategy -- if any -- will be employed. Calderón has promised to keep the military in the fight in Juarez, and the spokesman for the operation, Enrique Torres, said in an interview that 1,200 troops will continue to patrol the city with municipal police.

Calderón has promised results in 100 days.

Researcher Michael E. Miller in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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