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The Military Command Behind Mexico’s Violent Drug War
Photo: Erin Rosa
Our guest blogger is Erin Rosa . Erin writes for The Narco News. Erin Rosa is a writer and linguist based in the Western Hemisphere reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from All America.
The US Northern Command’s Work With Mexican Armed Forces Has ‘Increased Dramatically’ and May Be Expanded. As drug war violence in Mexico continues to increase, the US military has taken a more active and stronger role inside the country, providing the Mexican armed forces with equipment, training, and classified intelligence to fight the narcotics trade. Behind all of this is the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), a military unit created in 2002 for homeland defense missions.
With an alliance of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, NORTHCOM “consolidates under a single unified command of existing missions that were previously executed by other Department of Defense organizations,” according to the unit’s website. Despite being created shortly after the September 11 attacks with a focus on homeland security, in the last few years NORTHCOM has taken a specific interest in Mexico and the drug war, and may be looking to expand it operations.
Last May, at NORTHCOM headquarters on Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen compared the challenges facing Mexico with what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that “I also think there are wonderful opportunities to strengthen the relationship between our countries and between our militaries.”
Photo: DR 2006 Courtesy of Northcom.mil
A few months before that in March, ex-commander of NORTHCOM Gen. Victor Renuart told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “our military-to-military relationship with Mexico is growing stronger.” Renuart cited “a shared responsibility for countering the transnational illicit trafficking activity affecting our nations” and stated that “the level of communication, interchange, cooperation, and training exchanges between U.S. and Mexican armed forces has increased dramatically over the last two years and represents a historic opportunity for long-term strategic improvement of the U.S.-Mexico security partnership.”
The State Department, which works with NORTHCOM in Mexico, has said the same thing about the unit. US Embassy Mexico City spokesman Alexander Featherstone told Narco News this month that “The level of communication and cooperation between U.S. and Mexican armed forces has increased dramatically over the past two years and represents an historic high.”
NORTHCOM’s fourth and current commander Adm. James Winnefeld took his position in May, and since that time he has began conducting an informal assessment to determine a possible expansion of future operations into the counter narcotics fight, according to John Cornelio with NORTHCOM public relations, who when asked about the Mexico assessment said:
It is not a “formal” assessment where a written report is planned as much as it is an ongoing process by which the new commander is gathering information to uncover ways the command can more effectively work with our many partners. Admiral Winnefeld is inspired (instead of very encouraged) by the commitment of the Mexican government and its security forces to this important struggle for the future of Mexico, as well as by the level and quality of cooperation between Mexico and the United States. He and the rest of his team have also been impressed by the capability and courage of the Mexican military.
NORTHCOM Training Mexican Police, Military, Judicial Agencies
Before the assessment, and with officials already admitting to the US military’s increased role in Mexico, NORTHCOM has been significantly involved in the drug war with multiple levels of law enforcement. Working with the Mexican Navy (SEMAR in Spanish initials) and the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA in Spanish initials, which controls the country’s Army and the Air Force), NORTHCOM has conducted numerous “Subject Matter Expert (SME) exchanges” to train members of the Mexican armed forces.
This month Narco News reported that the State Department had been assisting NORTHCOM in trainings related to the drug war, which included the US Embassy in Mexico City paying for hotel rooms for the School of Americas and the Joint Special Operations University, a military school that teaches special operations tactics.
Through what are called “Mobile Training Team” events, NORTHCOM has worked to “to enhance respect for the rule of law and human rights within the Mexican armed forces,” according to Renuart’s testimony. “For example, USNORTHCOM attorneys and attorneys from the Mexican armed forces have already participated in conferences designed to develop curricula for the professional development of military attorneys.”
“These opportunities have recently included exchanges with Mexican counterparts on the U.S. military adversarial trial system, the discipline of operational law, and operational planning and intelligence, including the various roles of military, police and judicial agencies, as well as rule of law and human rights conventions,” says Cornelio, who confirms that the State Department is coordinating these trainings.
But as Renuart noted, NORTHCOM “also focuses on developing the ability to analyze and share the information that will allow the Mexican military to conduct operations against the drug trafficking organizations to systematically dismantle them. We are committed to a long-term military partnership with Mexico that is beneficial to both nations.”
NORTHCOM and Plan Mexico
NORTHCOM is tied to the State Department’s counter narcotics fight in other ways. Under Plan Mexico (also known as the Mérida Initiative), a 2008 security pact managed by the department in which the United States provides training and equipment to Mexican law enforcement and the armed forces to wage the drug war, the military unit has provided or is in the process of providing eight Bell 412 helicopters, five Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, and four transportation aircraft valued at $415.5 million, according to Congressional testimony from NORTHCOM.
General Gene Renuart (center), ex-Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, speaks with John Brennan (right), Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, and Carlos Pascual (left), U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, prior to attending the Bell-412 Helicopter Formal Delivery Ceremony in the SEDENA Hanger, at Benito Juarez International Airport, Mexico City, Dec. 15, which marked the official handover of five helicopters to the Government of Mexico under the Merida Initiative.
(Photo: D.R. 2009 David Suarez, U.S. Embassy Mexico City)
This equipment is to be used to “improve the Mexican military’s ability to deploy rapid-reaction forces quickly in support of police operations against drug cartels, and to conduct maritime surveillance in an effort to deny the use of the eastern Pacific and western Caribbean to transnational criminal organizations, including drug traffickers and potential terrorists,” Renuart said.
Related assistance includes $14 million for Night Vision Goggles, Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats, personal protective equipment, digital media forensics, tactical communications equipment, and specialized training. An additional $18 million is being used for pilot training, specialized skills training, and intelligence training.
Then there is “facilitated training support in the areas of Night Vision Goggle maintenance, Explosive Ordnance Disposal/Hazardous Material team training, and Aviation Training,” Renuart notes, saying “our service components are actively engaged with their Mexican counterparts in subject matter exchanges and sharing lessons learned from our experiences in the areas of civil-military relations and urban operations.”
With NORTHCOM serving as the military assistance arm behind Mexico’s drug war and Plan Mexico, and with officials of the military unit already expressing a desire for a long-term partnership with the Mexican government, the future NORTHCOM’s involvement in Mexico seems almost guaranteed.
This week, a SEDENA chief named Raúl Gámez Segovia acknowledged that while the terms of Plan Mexico technically ended in September, the US State Department has already proposed more funds for the drug war, and that “U.S. support for the acquisition of material and equipment to institutions in fighting drug trafficking is at a very advanced stage.”
On the human rights front, there is no accountability for members of the Mexican armed forces who commit acts of torture, or murders of civilians. In September, the State Department announced it was withholding $26 million in Plan Mexico funds due to concerns over abuses committed by the Mexican military.
Adding to that the increasing number of complaints of corruption against members of the Mexican armed forces, coupled with the estimated 28,000 people in Mexico who have died from drug war related violence in the last four years, the end to the drug war—and the US NORTHCOM’s numerous ways of supporting it—shows no signs of stopping.