U.S. military helping Mexican troops battle drug cartels

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:52 AM

The U.S. military has begun to work closely with Mexico's armed forces, sharing information and training soldiers in an expanding effort to help that country battle its violent drug cartels, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

U.S. military officials have been hesitant to discuss publicly their growing ties with Mexico, for fear of triggering a backlash among a Mexican public wary of interference. But current and former officials say the U.S. military has instructed hundreds of Mexican officers in the past two years in subjects such as how to plan military operations, use intelligence to hunt traffickers and observe human rights.

The Pentagon's counternarcotics funding for Mexico has nearly tripled, from $12.2 million in 2008 to more than $34 million in 2010, according to estimates by the Government Accountability Office. While that is a small fraction of the Mexican anti-drug money provided by the State Department, the funding is significant because of the history of chilly relations between the two militaries.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently reflected U.S. alarm over the Mexican cartels, saying that in some cases they were "morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency." The comment was splashed across front pages in Mexico, and President Obama hastened to assure angry Mexicans that he did not characterize the traffickers as a rebel movement.

Even so, U.S. military officials see similarities with their own counterinsurgency efforts and are passing on to the Mexicans some of the techniques they have honed, such as analyzing intelligence to track down enemy fighters.

"We have tried to share many of the lessons we've learned in chasing terrorist organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Gen. Victor Renuart, who recently retired as head of the U.S. military's Northern Command, which oversees the bilateral cooperation.

Mexico historically has been among the most reluctant countries in the hemisphere to cooperate with U.S. forces, in part because of lingering bitterness over invasions. Mexico still will not permit U.S. military trainers or advisers to deploy there full time.

But U.S. military officers are regularly traveling to Mexico to provide short courses for their Mexican counterparts, who then train their own personnel. In addition, more Mexicans are being trained at various U.S. military bases, officials say. The two sides' exchange of information has improved dramatically, officials say.

"The changes in the relationship between the Mexican military and the U.S. military are, I believe, historic," Renuart said.

The Obama administration is now considering what more it can do for Mexico's security forces.

"We've been directed by the president, at a very high level, to really think hard about how we can up our game, do more to support" the partnership with the Mexican government, said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

One plan under consideration involves using $50 million in funds from the Pentagon's 2011 budget to improve security along Mexico's southern border, an important corridor for drugs, officials said.

The Pentagon funds are in addition to the Merida Initiative, a package of law enforcement equipment and training run through the State Department. It has provided about $1.5 billion for Mexico over three years.

U.S. officials emphasize that the military assistance is part of a government-wide effort to assist Mexico on security. U.S. law enforcement agencies have also dramatically increased their cooperation with their Mexican counterparts, even embedding U.S. intelligence specialists in a Mexican command center.

"There clearly is a role for the U.S. military, but it is as a supporting player," said Roberta Jacobson, acting principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, who coordinates Merida Initiative assistance.

The Pentagon will also foot part of the bill for the 1,200 National Guard troops that Obama recently decided to send to the border with Mexico. Those forces are under state control.

Alarmed by the soaring drug violence, some U.S. lawmakers are urging the Pentagon and intelligence community to do more to help Mexico. "These might include new ways to jointly deploy aviation, surveillance and intelligence assets," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a recent speech.

But some U.S. analysts are skeptical. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has faced increasing criticism over his decision to battle the cartels with troops, who have been accused of thousands of human rights abuses.

"It's better to have a military that's better and more accountable. That said, I'm not sure the military is the right response. I think the deployment of the military has been done very badly" in Mexico, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution fellow who has studied the drug war.

Mexican soldiers were long taught that their main mission was protecting their country from the United States, which took half its territory after the mid-19th century Mexican-American War.

Cooperation began to increase in recent years with the collapse of Mexico's one-party political system. But it is the growing threat from drug traffickers that has prompted the biggest change. Drug violence has claimed at least 30,000 lives in Mexico in the past four years.

"President Calderon wants us in," said the senior U.S. official, adding: "We have to be respectful, obviously, and make clear we take responsibility for part of the problem and are supporting, not telling Mexico what to do."

Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the chief of the Northern Command, has called the partnership with Mexico his "number one priority." He declined an interview request.

In the past, U.S. military training teams rarely went to Mexico, analysts say. But Renuart said that small U.S. teams have been visiting the Mexican military academies, as well as regional military commands. Increased training is also occurring in the United States, officials say.

In addition to providing intelligence and human rights courses, U.S. military instructors are teaching Mexicans how to use and maintain equipment provided through the Merida Initiative, such as helicopters and night-vision goggles.

Among those traveling to Mexico to give seminars to the military are staff members from the Joint Special Operations University, a sort of "college" for U.S. Special Operations forces.

Mexico's army has stationed a permanent liaison officer at the Northern Command, which is based in Colorado. And for the first time, a Mexican officer is serving as assistant commandant at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga., formerly known as the School of the Americas.

Information-sharing between the two militaries has improved "immensely," said Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan.

The Northern Command "has become a valuable clearinghouse on the U.S. side, ensuring all the disparate U.S. agencies are working together, ensuring that information is reaching those who need to have it in real time - so we can provide the endgame," he said.

Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.