Transnational Criminal Organizations

US Intelligence Support to Mexico's Counter-Cartel Operations

By Robert Chesney
Monday, April 29, 2013, 7:04 PM

This Washington Post article by Dana Priest is an excellent primer for those looking for an introduction to the particulars of US intelligence support to Mexico's counter-cartel activities, as well as the looming issue of whether Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena-Nieto, will pull back from this relationship.  Key nuggets in the article include:

  1. A pithy itemization of the various forms that support has taken over time: ISR via (unarmed) drones launched from the US and operated by CBP (including both slow-burning efforts to develop "pattern of life" intel and operation-specific support to raids carried out by Mexican security forces; the article emphasizes that when it comes to US-owned drones, Mexican officials "direct the [American] pilot within the boundaries of a Mexico-designated grid"); electronic surveillance gear (including voice-recognition tech, cell-phone trackers, and more); software for data analysis (presumably network analysis); "computer hacking kits"; training on HUMINT recruiting and counter-intelligence methods; and training in the process of real-time exploitation of intelligence in tracking high-value targets (along the lines pioneered by JSOC in Iraq and Afghanistan).
  2. A report that CIA at one point proposed a cyber operation to drain the bank accounts of key cartel leaders, a proposal rejected by the Bush White House based on input from Treasury.
  3. A report that the Calderon administration at one point requested armed drones, a request the Bush administration "quickly rejected" (unclear if these were to be armed drones operated by us or them).
  4. A discussion of some six or seven US-vetted, -funded, and -supported special units in Mexico (presumably part of the Federal Police, though it's not clear), "sponsored by the DEA, CIA, and at least one other U.S. law enforcement agency."  This phenomenon began back in 1997 with DEA's Sensitive Investigative Unit program; Priest reports that the cartels managed to penetrate the original two SIU units DEA created.  It is unclear whether and to what extent the latest iterations are in fact useful.  At any rate, Priest notes that "Mexico does not allow U.S. agents to take part in the actual raids, but they can be involved in planning operations and can even direct them remotely." (emphasis added).
  5. A discussion of the fusion centers through which the US and Mexico engage in real-time intelligence-sharing and cooperation (including both CIA- and DEA-sponsored facilities), and the presence of US advisors in key regional locations (such as the Federal Police facility in Ciuded Juarez during a two-year stretch).
  6. A recent decision by the new administration of President Enrique Pena-Nieto to the effect that "Americans will no longer be allowed to work inside any fusion center...."