Transnational Criminal Organizations

U.S. Involvement in Mexico's Cartel Wars Deepens, in a Largely Positive Way

By Robert Chesney
Sunday, August 7, 2011, 7:24 PM

U.S. involvement in Mexico's struggle against violent drug-trafficking organizations has deepened recently, according to Ginger Thompson's piece in the New York Times today:

When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Mr. Calderón’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.

American officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the American team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.

But the officials said the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.

“The Mexicans are in charge," said one American military official. “It’s their show. We’re all about technical support.”

Earlier in the piece, Thompson suggests that the relationship is not merely about intelligence coordination, but also would include support in relation to operational planning:

In recent weeks, small numbers of C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations.

This is interesting on many levels.

First, note the interagency aspects insofar as this initiative involves DEA, CIA, and former Northern Command personnel (Mexican law, as I understand it, would preclude the stationing of active-duty US military personnel on Mexican soil, which might explain that last part about the former Northern Command folks).  This is reminiscent of the "jointness" we see in the CT context with JSOC/CIA operational cooperation.

Second, it is of course very significant that the project supposedly involves not merely sharing of intelligence but also cooperation in collection and operational planning.  This ought to be a net positive insofar as it will enable the US to better integrate its SIGINT collection capacities with Mexico's comparative advantage in cartel-related HUMINT (I'm assuming Mexico has such an advantage...), which one hopes will in turn produce more targeted, efficient, and effective counter-cartel operations.  Indeed, the whole thing is reminiscint of the integrated intelligence/targeting processes that have been developed over the years in Afghanistan and Iraq (the article notes that Mexico is quick to reject any comparisons to such failed state/COIN scenarios, yet the parallels are striking notwithstanding the relative health and history of the Mexican state).

Third, the stakes are high in a couple of respects.  Most obviously, the U.S. personnel involved of course are at risk. (Thompson notes that the Times did not disclose the name of the base where the personnel are working, but I can't help noting that the story nonetheless reveals that the US personnel are working out of a military base in Northern Mexico--a fact that surely adds nothing useful to the public's understanding of this story, yet does increase the risk to the US personnel involved).  And from a big picture perspective, it is worth noting that every new element of direct US involvement in the cartel conflict carries with it a risk of further escalation.  That is a serious consideration, though one should not jump to the conclusion that nothing further should be done by the U.S. lest we fall all the way down the slippery slope.

Finally, note that Thompson also describes a separate initiative currently under consideration but not yet adopted: embedding contract personnel (former DEA and SOF) with a key Mexican countercartel unit, for hands-on training purposes:

Several former D.E.A. officials said the two countries were considering a proposal to embed a group of private security contractors — including retired D.E.A. agents and former Special Forces officers — inside the unit to conduct an on-the-job training academy that would offer guidance in conducting operations so that suspects can be successfully taken to court. Mexican prosecutors would also work with the unit, the Americans said.

This is surely going to get some observers quite concerned; the optics of "contractors" having anything like an embedded role with an operational unit will strike some as a major step down the road toward direct U.S. operational involvement.  And that is a risk worth watching out for, to be sure.  But note the "positive lawfare" thrust of the proposal described above.  The idea, it seems, is to improve the capacity of the unit in question to conduct operations that result in arrests and successful prosecutions.  This is certainly a laudable goal, and it should be possible for the embedded element to be structured in a manner that would keep the U.S. personnel strictly focused on training.  The fact that Mexican domestic law and political pressures may require this to be done via contractors rather than active-duty U.S. government/military personnel should not stand in the way.