Mexico: US to train commandos for ‘drug war’

Citing documents and interviews with several US officials, Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press wire service reported on Jan. 17 that the US military’s Northern Command (Northcom) has a new special operations headquarters in Colorado, to be used “to teach Mexican security forces how to hunt drug cartels the same way special operations teams hunt al-Qaida.” A Dec. 31 memo signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta transformed the Northcom special operations group into the new command headquarters, which will be led by a general rather than a colonel. The staff will increase from 30 to 150.

According to Dozier, this is the latest effort by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) head Adm. Bill McRaven “to migrate special operators from their decade of service in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to new missions.” SOCOM “has already helped Mexican officials set up their own intelligence center in Mexico City to target criminal networks, patterned after similar centers in war zones built to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Dozier wrote. Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement officers have reportedly visited SOCOM facilities at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Mexican officials also visited a SOCOM targeting center at the Balad air base in Iraq before the US troop withdrawal in 2011, according to a former US official.

The Mexican government hasn’t expressed an opinion on Northcom’s plan to help with its “war on drugs,” but Agnes Gereben Schaefer of the California-based Rand Corporation intelligence group told Dozier that Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto would probably support the plan. “He has talked about setting up a paramilitary force…made up of former military and police forces, which he has described as more surgical” than the current effort, Schaefer said. At least 50,000 Mexicans have died in the wave of violence that followed the militarization of anti-narcotics efforts that former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa started at the beginning of his 2006-2012 administration. (Miami Herald, Jan. 17, from AP)

In a Jan. 18 blog post, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) researcher Adam Isacson noted that the new development “signals a closer relationship” between the US military and Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) under President Peña; the Mexican military has traditionally been suspicious of the US. “[A]s Special Forces units leave Afghanistan ahead of the 2014 drawdown, there will be many more of them available for training and other missions in Latin America,” Isacson wrote. “The pace of Special Forces deployments—low-profile, under the radar, mostly for training, but also serving other purposes, like intelligence-gathering—is very likely beginning to pick up throughout the hemisphere.” (Just the Facts blog, Jan. 18)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 20.