US law enforcement role in Mexico drug war surges

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:01 AM

MEXICO CITY -- Arturo Beltran-Leyva, a notoriously cruel cartel boss and one of Mexico's most wanted criminals, threw a riotous Christmas party two years ago with Grammy-winning musicians, prostitutes, and lavish food and drinks.

U.S. law enforcement agents in Mexico, electronically spying on Beltran-Leyva, relayed detailed information to U.S.-trained Mexican Navy Special Forces, who crashed the fiesta. After a 90-minute shootout, the cartel leader fled with a gut wound.

U.S. detectives next electronically tracked Beltran-Leyva, 48, to a posh apartment in nearby Cuernavaca. With their help, 200 Mexican Special Forces rolled in on tanks and rappelled from helicopters. The next morning, photos of Beltran-Leyva's bloody body, plastered with bank notes, were splashed across Mexican front pages.

At the time, it was considered a rare success in U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation. Now, unprecedented numbers of U.S. law enforcement agents work in Mexico, and high-profile arrests occur monthly. U.S. drones spy on cartel hideouts, while U.S. tracking beacons pinpoint suspect's cars and phones.

"Yes, we're tracking vehicles, yes, we're tracking people," says Brad Barker, president of HALO Corporation, a private security firm that, among other things, helps rescue kidnapped people in Mexico. "There's been a huge spike in agents down there."

The bilateral cooperation is touching off Mexican sensitivities about sovereignty, while stoking U.S. debate about the wisdom of inserting American operatives so deep into the fight. More than 35,000 people have been killed in drug trafficking violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown four years ago, and the killing of a U.S. agent last month prompted the U.S. Congress to schedule hearings into the role of American personnel.

The U.S. agents generally provide intelligence and training, while Mexicans do the hands-on work. Neither side will say exactly how many agents are in Mexico, citing security concerns, but the Associated Press was able to identify several hundred using the Freedom of Information Act, federal budget requests, government audits, Congressional testimony and agency accountability reports.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has the largest U.S. presence in the drug war, with more than 60 agents in Mexico. Then there are 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, 20 Marshal Service deputies, 18 Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, and dozens more working for the FBI, Citizen and Immigration Service, Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, Coast Guard and Transportation Safety Agency.

The State Department's Narcotics Affairs Section staff alone jumped from 19 to 69 in the past three years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

There are so many State Department narcotics personnel that they took up two entire floors of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City before moving into a new building with their Mexican counterparts. This is the second so-called fusion center the two countries share in Mexico now.

The U.S. has spent $364 million of the $1.5 billion promised for Mexico since 2008 under the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-Central American joint anti-crime effort, and Mexico will spend about $10.7 billion on public security this year.

Despite close law enforcement collaboration, Mexican officials often play down U.S. involvement to avoid rubbing nationalist raw spots. The sensitivities were evident Wednesday in the angry reaction of Mexican lawmakers to news that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been operating Predator drones in Mexico for the past two years, while the U.S. military's Global Hawk drone began flying south of the border in March. They said they were not informed by Mexico's National Security Council, which had invited the spy planes in.

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