By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:41 AM
MATAMOROS, MEXICO - The U.S. government is turning to elite units of Mexican marines to go after drug cartel bosses in aggressive "capture or kill" missions, providing intelligence and training to bolster what officials say is Mexico's most trustworthy and nimble force.
The effort includes more direct information-sharing and training than previously known, according to diplomats and law enforcement officials, and reflects a sense of urgency on the part of the U.S. government to find a professional partner to combat drug violence in Mexico that is seen as posing a threat to American security.
The U.S. government has long been wary of corruption among Mexican police and frustrated by the slow response of the Mexican army. The decision to rely on the marines has enabled that force to carry out the kind of rapid-strike operations undertaken by U.S. forces against Taliban leaders Afghanistan.
Based in the U.S. Embassy and in consulates in conflict zones along the border such as Matamoros, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration deliver "intelligence packages" about the location of drug bosses to the Mexican marines, who then charge into action, often within hours, sometimes capturing, sometimes killing their quarry in spectacular urban firefights.
Mexican officials deny that the U.S. military is training Mexican marines, and the Pentagon declines to discuss the training, but U.S. officials confirm in interviews and recently leaked diplomatic cables that the U.S. military is conducting urban-combat and counterinsurgency instruction in Mexico and the United States.
Employing the marines is a strategy not without risks - the Mexican navy, like the army, lacks real transparency, is not subject to broad civilian oversight and has embarrassed itself. U.S. officials were shocked to see the bloodied, half-naked corpse of cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva covered in peso bank notes and jewelry in "trophy photographs" splashed on the front pages of newspapers hours after his death.
Human rights groups say complaints against the marines may increase as their role in the drug war expands.
"By bringing the navy in for short-term operations - to take somebody out and leave again - they preserve some level of immunity," said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "But having the navy doing patrols on the streets is blurring the lines, and that's the big risk now."
In a cable dated Jan. 29, John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, praised the Mexican marines and said that "our ties with the military have never been closer in terms of not only equipment transfers and training, but also the kinds of intelligence exchanges that are essential to making inroads against organized crime." The cable was written before a high-level Defense Bilateral Working Group meeting in Mexico in February.
The diplomat wrote that "for the first time," the Mexican army is "following the Navy's lead" and "has asked for SOF training." SOF is an acronym for Special Operations Force. The cables were provided by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks to media sites Thursday night.
In another cable, after a December 2009 operation that resulted in Beltran Leyva's killing in a luxury condo in Cuernavaca, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual also praised the marines corps for "its emerging role as the key player in the counter-narcotics fight."
According to the ambassador, the marine unit that led the operation had been "extensively trained" by the U.S. Northern Command, the Pentagon's joint operations center in Colorado that oversees and coordinates defense in North America, including Mexico.
"The Mexican Navy and their Marines have demonstrated the ability to take intelligence information and move rapidly against these senior cartel leaders," Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., who retired as head of the Northern Command in May, said in an interview.
The marines' successes, which include captures and kills of a dozen top-level drug bosses, put the Army "in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets," Pascual wrote.
The ambassador stated that intelligence on Beltran Leyva's whereabouts was first provided by the DEA and other U.S. law enforcement to the Mexican army, "whose refusal to move quickly reflected a risk aversion that cost the institution a major counter-narcotics victory." He added that the head of the federal police, Genaro Garcia Luna, "can also be counted as a net loser" for failing to play a major role and asserted that Garcia Luna complained the operation should have been his.U.S. intelligence is key
Acting again on U.S. intelligence, marines here in Matamoros sent 660 troops and three helicopters last month to take down Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, the Gulf cartel boss known as Tony Tormenta, or Tony the Storm.
The rolling seven-hour gun battle that followed was so fierce it left holes the size of a hatchback in the office building where Cardenas Guillen made his last stand.
Fears of stray bullets forced the University of Texas at Brownsville across the river to shut down. One shopkeeper in downtown Matamoros who spent the day cowering under his desk passed the time tallying grenade blasts. He stopped counting at 67.
"Killing the capos is important, and that's what soldiers are trained to do," said Raul Benitez, a security analyst at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "But it's better to capture them alive."
While the top drug lords often don't let themselves be taken prisoner, the marines have captured several major underbosses, and Mexican security analysts and U.S. officials say the marines have benefited from an unparalleled level of cooperation with American military and anti-narcotics agencies.
Mexican security analysts, U.S. officials and former military commanders say the marines are the recipients of an unequaled level of cooperation with American military and anti-narcotics agencies.
"They are working almost exclusively on our intel," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting nationalist sensitivities here.
The U.S. official described the training as QRF - Quick Reaction Force training - consisting of "light armored infantry training, with small unit operations in urban settings, and tactical maneuvering."
The training draws on American counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, he and other U.S. officials said.
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.