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DEA intelligence aids Mexican marines in drug war

Mexican marines have emerged as the country's most effective cartel-fighting organization, and WikiLeak documents support reports that the U.S. is training them.

Congress has set aside at least $310 million for the Mexican navy since 2007, including surveillance planes and Black Hawk helicopters, as part of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, which tracks military aid to the region.

Mexico's army has been more visible than its navy in the fight against organized crime, having been deployed by President Felipe Calderon in a law enforcement role that involves conducting street patrols in urban hot spots such as Ciudad Juarez.

But while U.S. intelligence-sharing with the army has increased, army generals have historically been less open to U.S. military cooperation, security experts in both countries say.

In one of the leaked cables, U.S. diplomats refer to the Mexican army as parochial, risk-averse and jealous of its turf and privileges.

In contrast, Mexican navy officers have been working with American and other foreign counterparts for years, developing a degree of trust enjoyed by no other Mexican force.

According to Martin Barron Cruz, a military expert at Mexico's National Institute of Criminal Sciences and a former navy officer, that cooperation is partly the product of geographical necessity.

"Mexico's coastline is vast and its navy has traditionally been small," he said. "So the navy has always needed help - with technology, with vessels, with intelligence. They were still using ships from the 1930s until recently."

Because it is a smaller force, the Mexican navy has also been better able to police corruption among its ranks, with a corps of professional officers who have long personal ties dating back to their time at Mexico's naval academy.

"We know each other," said Rear Adm. Jose Luis Vergara, a spokesman for the Mexican navy. "So if one of my subordinates suddenly has a new car and a new house, I'll notice," he said, adding that officers are subjected to regular polygraph tests.

Longtime partners

The presence of U.S. troops on Mexican soil has long been politically taboo, limiting contact between the countries' armies. But the Mexican navy has been teaming with the United States for years, conducting joint operations at sea without public controversy in Mexico. Mexican navy officers have attended classes and training sessions in the United States, strengthening the relationships that are the foundation of intelligence-sharing.

"If you don't gather intelligence and you don't know where the criminals are, you're just swinging at a pinata with a blindfold on," Vergara said, noting that the final assault on Cardenas Guillen was preceded by two operations in previous weeks in which 47 cartel members were arrested and 176,000 rounds of ammunition, two rocket launchers and 257 grenades were seized.

Matamoros has remained on edge since Cardenas Guillen's death, as marine units patrol the town in gray Ford Lobo pickup trucks with mounted machine guns. The navy's annual holiday, Nov. 23, is traditionally commemorated in the city square, but no public event was held this year.

As street patrols increase and the navy's role in Mexico's drug war expands, its reputation will come under new pressure, and its officers will face added temptations, experts say.

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