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US Support for Mexico’s Drug War Goes Beyond Guns and Money

The US puts its own personnel on the line in Mexico, but corruption and violence characterize both countries’ security forces.

Mexican federal police forces in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. (Image via Shutterstock)

In spite of widely acknowledged and rampant corruption in Mexico’s security and law enforcement institutions, implicated in the September disappearance of more than 40 college students, the United States continues to supply the country with well over $100 million per year in military and police assistance, including world-class weapons, training and intelligence.

Now, a new report from the Wall Street Journal is adding fuel to long-standing criticisms of the United States’ extensive role in helping to execute the so-called “war on drugs” in Latin America. Evidently, the United States has gone well beyond simply providing diplomatic, financial and technical support for Mexico’s fight against organized crime; it even puts its own personnel on the front lines.

The Journal reported recently that the US Marshal Service has repeatedly sent “specialists,” disguised as local security forces, into Mexico to hunt down suspected criminals, including some who aren’t on a US wanted list.

Tellingly, a recent poll showed that seven out of 10 Mexicans believe there will be no justice for the killing and disappearance . . . of students . . . allegedly orchestrated by the local mayor and his wife.

The US Marshal Service describes its role as “carrying out extraditions to the United States from foreign countries and supporting extraditions to foreign countries from the United States.” Its mandate does not include capturing suspected criminals wanted by foreign governments within their own borders.

However, according to the Journal’s account, on July 11, 2014, US Marshals disguised as Mexican Marines and carrying Mexican weapons reportedly came under fire while on assignment with actual Mexican Marines in Sinaloa state. One American was shot and injured, setting off a gunfight that killed several suspected cartel members.

In a statement about this account, Mexico’s Navy Secretariat said, “We categorically deny that American authorities or those from any other country have participated with Mexican navy personnel in tactical operations in the field against organized crime utilizing Mexican uniforms and arms.” The US government has yet to issue a statement confirming or denying the report.

According to the Journal, the “Mexican embassy in Washington denied that Mexico’s government gave US agencies permission to go on armed raids” inside the country. It is unclear whether anyone was shot or killed by the US Marshals, but one source familiar with such operations told the Journal that when things go awry, “it can turn into a flat-out kill mission.”

The Marshal Service is not the only US law enforcement agency said to be operating in Mexico. Earlier this year, media reports indicated that a small team of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and US Marshals were directly embedded with Mexican Marines during the raid that captured the head of Mexico’s most powerful criminal empire, Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo.”

The United States is currently seeking the crime boss’s extradition, but there is little chance that he will be sent to the United States. According to George Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chapo might spill the beans on the hundreds, maybe thousands, of military, police and political figures to whom he has given generous bribes over the years.

In other words, Mexican authorities may be keeping El Chapo in a prison system he has escaped from once before to help cover up their complicity in his alleged crimes.

In addition to putting the safety of its own citizens at risk in order to carry out the drug war abroad, the United States has also shared advanced law enforcement tactics and technology as well as sensitive intelligence information with potentially compromised law enforcement authorities.

On top of the $2 billion in military and police assistance the United States has provided Mexico since 2006, it also provided training to more than 16,000 Mexican security personnel and supplied $4 billion worth of weapons to the country during the same period. One recent media report described a new Mexican law enforcement intelligence facility as “having a direct line of contact with American agencies.”

Disconcertingly, the Mexican federal congress has repeatedly extended the vetting deadline for local, state and federal police officers. The national police vetting center has not had a director since October 2012, nearly the entire time President Enrique Peña Nieto has been in office.

Furthermore, the agency’s vetting process – developed under the previous administration with US guidance and assistance – has been criticized for sloppy administration and for depriving officers of their due process rights, among other issues.

Although the Mexican government claims all police officers have undergone background checks, corruption runs rampant even among “vetted” units. The government estimates that more than 10 percent of state and municipal police have failed their confidence examinations, but it refuses to say how many of those officers have been relieved of their duties.

Corruption is far from the only stumbling block facing Mexico in its attempts to get crime and violence under control. Impunity and lack of trust in local security forces run deep. Nine out of 10 Mexican citizens lack trust in their local police forces, and the police, along with political parties, are perceived as the most corrupt institution in Mexican society.

Tellingly, a recent poll showed that seven out of 10 Mexicans believe there will be no justice for the killing and disappearance this September of dozens of students from Ayotzinapa college in the town of Iguala.

Witnesses say the attack was carried out by local police, potentially working alongside the Guerreros Unidos criminal group. The apparent massacre was allegedly orchestrated by the local mayor and his wife, who were suspected of being tied to organized crime.

While some of the police officers and government officials allegedly involved in the Ayotzinapa incident have been arrested, many Mexican citizens remain unsatisfied with the explanation that the tragedy was the work of ordinary criminals. A chant commonly heard at the mass protests currently sweeping the country indicates exactly where many citizens place the blame: “Fue el Estado” (“It was the state”).

When Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo abruptly ended a news conference on the Ayotzinapa tragedy with the phrase “Ya me canse” (“I’m tired”), the statement was coopted and transformed into a rallying cry on social media and in demonstrations. Citizens described being tired of the rising rates of extortion, assaults and disappearances as well as the general crisis of insecurity in their country.

Corruption and abuses by security forces aren’t limited to the Mexican side of the border. Security and law enforcement officials in both Mexico and the United States have been accused of harassing, extorting and even kidnapping, raping or killing refugees and migrants, as well as committing acts of violence and torture against other individuals.

Last month, three American citizens were murdered in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, allegedly by an “elite” local police squad known as Grupo Hercules. The unit is thought to have acted on the orders of the mayor of Matamoros, a town less than 20 miles from the border with Hidalgo County, Texas.

Rather than pushing for the difficult, long-term reforms necessary to achieve positive changes in law enforcement and citizen security, the United States has continued to provide massive amounts of aid, intelligence, training and, evidently, secret manpower to try to patch up gaping holes in the drug war framework.

Police in another part of Tamaulipas state also recently opened fire on a truck that allegedly failed to stop at a checkpoint, wounding a pregnant 14-year-old US citizen. Both these incidents went relatively uncovered in United States and global media, and officials on both sides of the border have not been eager to comment on them publicly.

In January of this year, a tense armed standoff between Mexican soldiers and US Border Patrol agents in Arizona brought attention to the continuing friction between the United States and Mexico in policing the massive border between the countries.

The confrontation also drew questions from some US officials about whether the Mexican soldiers were actually chasing drug smugglers across the border, as they claimed, or whether they were protecting cartels using drug trafficking routes into the United States.

Like their Mexican counterparts, many US officials have also been linked to organized crime. Sources from the Department of Homeland Security told Mexico’s El Universal newspaper that more than 2,000 US officials have been investigated for potential underworld ties this year alone.

A recent string of law enforcement arrests in Hidalgo County, Texas, has revealed deep-seated corruption on the US side. In July, former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño was sentenced to five years in federal prison on charges of federal money laundering connected to a drug trafficking scheme.

Treviño’s conviction came just three months after his son, Jonathan Treviño, was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison for his role in the Panama Unit corruption scandal, which involved a rogue anti-narcotics squad stealing both drugs and cash from criminals and negotiating their own drug transactions.

While federal officials from Mexico and the United States have made little public mention of these events, the Ayotzinapa case has become an international issue. A November 25 letter from a bipartisan group of US Senators “express[ed] . . . deep concern for the lives of the 43 young students who disappeared” and “call[ed] for additional attention on strengthening the investigative and forensic capacity of Mexican law enforcement and its ability to serve victims of crime, violence and human rights abuses.” The lawmakers also implied that the situation in Guerrero is symptomatic of a larger issue that has been endemic to Mexico in recent years.

In response to the continued and growing outrage over the Mexican government’s lethargic response to the Ayotzinapa incident, Peña Nieto’s administration unveiled 10 proposals for security and justice reform, including removing some authorities from local police forces. The US government also recently announced that it would be providing $68 million over the next five years to support efforts to reform the Mexican judicial system.

However, the United States has come under heavy criticism for the behavior of its own local police forces. In Ferguson, Missouri, the killing of the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by a local police officer in August of this year resulted in weeks of popular protests that were met with a militarized response from local and state authorities. The Ferguson prosecutor’s office has come under heavy criticism for failing to secure an indictment against the officer who shot and killed Brown.

These and numerous other incidents of excessive violence by US security forces against citizens at home and abroad raise serious doubts about the ability of the United States to support effective reforms to other countries’ police and military institutions.

Rather than pushing for the difficult, long-term reforms necessary to achieve positive changes in law enforcement and citizen security, the United States has continued to provide massive amounts of aid, intelligence, training and, evidently, secret manpower to try to patch up gaping holes in the drug war framework.

The absence of official statements from the US government about the international outrage generated by the Ayotzinapa case and the general lack of citizen security in Mexico – even when it directly impacts American citizens – belies a refusal by the United States to acknowledge its complicity in propping up a security apparatus fundamentally undermined by corruption, impunity and incompetence.

Even more concerning, the United States has yet to adequately address issues of transparency, accountability and respect for human rights in its own security forces. Until the United States cleans up its own image in this regard, perhaps it should refrain from giving so much information and assistance to partner countries with even worse policing records than its own.

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