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U.S., Mexico align against brutal narcotics trade

After decades of mistrust and sometimes betrayal, Mexican and U.S. authorities are increasingly setting aside their differences to unite against a common enemy.
Image: Police in Tijuana, Mexico
Police officers examine a patrol truck struck by bullets after a shooting between gunmen and police in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sept. 30.Guillermo Arias / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

To avenge the arrest of their leader, Mexican drug cartel commandos went on a rampage this summer across the lawless state of Michoacan, seizing 12 Mexican police officers and dumping their bound and stripped corpses in a pile beside a busy highway.

The slaughtered federal agents, it later emerged, had something in common: All had been vetted and trained by the U.S. government to work alongside its anti-narcotics agents. Officials said the American connection made them high-value targets for the cartels, which are lashing back ruthlessly against a military crackdown involving unprecedented cooperation between the two countries.

After decades of mistrust and sometimes betrayal, Mexican and U.S. authorities are increasingly setting aside their differences to unite against a common enemy. According to interviews in Washington and Mexico City, the two countries are sharing sensitive intelligence and computer technology, military hardware and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. know-how to train and vet Mexican agents. Police and soldiers secretly on the cartels' payroll have long poisoned efforts at cross-border cooperation against some of the world's most dangerous criminal organizations.

"The recognition by both sides, at the highest levels, that we have a shared responsibility for drug trafficking and serious crime in Mexico is a watershed change," said John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

The newly robust partnership is still risky, uneasy and freighted with old suspicions. U.S. law enforcement officials said it is being forged with the assurance by the U.S. State Department that Mexico's weak law enforcement agencies will overcome a history of incompetence and corruption, and that the closed ranks of the Mexican military, which operates with virtual impunity, can get past its hostility to outsiders.

A gamble
U.S. officials also acknowledge that the growing cooperation is still a gamble. With their almost limitless resources, drug traffickers have corrupted top crime fighters in President Felipe Calderón's administration, including the head of the attorney general's organized-crime unit. A cartel spy penetrated the Interpol office here and claims to have worked inside the U.S. Embassy to steal secrets from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The new relationship goes well beyond, and builds upon, the Merida Initiative, the $1.4 billion U.S. anti-narcotics package to Mexico launched by the Bush administration. That three-year agreement includes the promise of Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and gamma-ray scanners to search for guns and cash at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But now, for the first time, the U.S. and Mexican armed forces regularly exchange classified intelligence in real time, often through Mexican officers embedded at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs and at an interagency task force in Key West, Fla. The task force, which is responsible for military satellite and maritime surveillance over the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, relays information to the Mexican navy and air force to interdict drugs moving north.

‘This will make us proactive’
In addition, Mexican technicians are using U.S. government software to help build Platform Mexico, a computer network housed in a new five-story bunker at the edge of Mexico City. When the facility opens next week, the network will connect Mexican authorities with U.S. law enforcement databases. The most useful information, such as traces of weapons used in crimes, is being translated into Spanish.

"This is one of our most important reforms because if you don't have the intelligence, the information, you are just reacting. This will make us proactive," said José Francisco Niembro González, director of Platform Mexico.

While hardware and technology are important, senior officials in both governments describe the vetting program as the linchpin for their new levels of information sharing. Under an agreement with the Mexican government, U.S. agencies administer lie-detector tests and background checks for hundreds of Mexican agents now working with U.S. counterparts. These vetted units, which include elements in the Mexican military, are cleared to receive U.S. intelligence, including access to undercover agents and confidential informants.

The murder of the 12 agents in Michoacan represents the deadliest attack against the Mexican federal police in the modern era. The officers were ambushed just as they were about to launch an operation against a leader of La Familia, one of Mexico's newest and most violent drug mafias. Instead, in the middle of the night, 20 heavily armed men, dressed in stolen uniforms and impersonating federal officers, burst into their rented house and kidnapped them.

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.

Key assets in fight
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.

Desperate for more agents on the street
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."