U.S. Widens Military & Weapons Role in Mexico, As Country Faces Its Worst Attack Yet – In Monterrey


Cross-border operations are part of a broadening American campaign aimed at blunting the power of Mexican cartels.

One officer said, “The military is trying to take what it did in Afghanistan and do the same in Mexico.” This as the death Toll Rises to 53 in yesterday’s Attack on a Mexico Casino 
in the city of Monterrey.
That’s exactly what some Mexicans are afraid of, said a Mexican political scientist, Denise Dresser, who is an expert on that country’s relations with the United States.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to greater American involvement,” Ms. Dresser said. “But if that’s the way the Mexican government wants to go, it needs to come clean about it. Just look at what we learned from Iraq. Secrecy led to malfeasance. It led to corrupt contracting. It led to torture. It led to instability. And who knows when those problems will be resolved.”

Via NY Times

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has expanded its role in Mexico’s fight against organized crime by allowing the Mexican police to stage cross-border drug raids from inside the United States, according to senior administration and military officials.
Mexican commandos have discreetly traveled to the United States, assembled at designated areas and dispatched helicopter missions back across the border aimed at suspected drug traffickers. The Drug Enforcement Administration provides logistical support on the American side of the border, officials said, arranging staging areas and sharing intelligence that helps guide Mexico’s decisions about targets and tactics.

Officials said these so-called boomerang operations were intended to evade the surveillance — and corrupting influences — of the criminal organizations that closely monitor the movements of security forces inside Mexico. And they said the efforts were meant to provide settings with tight security for American and Mexican law enforcement officers to collaborate in their pursuit of criminals who operate on both sides of the border.

Although the operations remain rare, they are part of a broadening American campaign aimed at blunting the power of Mexican cartels that have built criminal networks spanning the world and have started a wave of violence in Mexico that has left more than 35,000 people dead.

Many aspects of the campaign remain secret, because of legal and political sensitivities. But in recent months, details have begun to emerge, revealing efforts that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, who was elected in 2006, has broken with his country’s historic suspicion of the United States and has enlisted Washington’s help in defeating the cartels, a central priority for his government.

American Predator and Global Hawk drones now fly deep over Mexico to capture video of drug production facilities and smuggling routes. Manned American aircraft fly over Mexican targets to eavesdrop on cellphone communications. And the D.E.A. has set up an intelligence outpost — staffed by Central Intelligence Agency operatives and retired American military personnel — on a Mexican military base.

“There has always been a willingness and desire on the part of the United States to play more of a role in Mexico’s efforts,” said Eric L. Olson, an expert on Mexico at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But there have been some groundbreaking developments on the Mexican side where we’re seeing officials who are willing to take some risks, even political risks, by working closely with the United States to carry out very sensitive missions.”

Still, the cooperation remains a source of political tensions, especially in Mexico where the political classes have been leery of the United States dating from the Mexican-American War of 1846. Recent disclosures about the expanding United States’ role in the country’s main national security efforts have set off a storm of angry assertions that Mr. Calderón has put his own political interests ahead of Mexican sovereignty. Mr. Calderón’s political party faces an election next year that is viewed in part as a referendum on his decision to roll out this campaign against drug traffickers.

Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns walked into that storm during a visit to Mexico this month and strongly defended the partnership the two governments had developed.

“I’ll simply repeat that there are clear limits to our role,” Mr. Burns said. “Our role is not to conduct operations. It is not to engage in law enforcement activities. That is the role of the Mexican authorities. And that’s the way it should be.”

Officials said Mexico and the United States began discussing the possibility of cross-border missions two years ago, when Mexico’s crime wave hit the important industrial corridor between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo. To avoid being detected, the Mexican police traveled to the United States in plain clothes on commercial flights, two military officials said. Later the officers were transported back to Mexico on Mexican aircraft, which dropped the agents at or near their targets.

“The cartels don’t expect Mexican police coming from the U.S.,” said one senior military official. None of the officials interviewed about the boomerang operations would speak publicly about them, and refused to provide details about where they were conducted or what criminal organizations had been singled out.

They said that the operations had been carried out only a couple of times in the last 18 months, and that they had not resulted in any significant arrests.

The officials insisted that the Pentagon is not involved in the cross-border operations, and that no Americans take part in drug raids on Mexican territory.

“These are not joint operations,” said one senior administration official. “They are self-contained Mexican operations where staging areas were provided by the United States.”
Former American law enforcement officials who were once posted in Mexico described the boomerang operations as a new take on an old strategy that was briefly used in the late 1990s, when the D.E.A. helped Mexico crack down on the Tijuana Cartel.

To avoid the risks of the cartel being tipped off to police movements by lookouts or police officials themselves, the former officers said, the D.E.A. arranged for specially vetted Mexican police to stage operations out of Camp Pendleton in San Diego. The Mexican officers were not given the names of the targets of their operations until they were securely sequestered on the base. And they were not given the logistical details of the mission until shortly before it was under way.

“They were a kind of rapid-reaction force,” said one former senior D.E.A. official. “It was an effective strategy at the time.”

Another former D.E.A. official said that the older operations resulted in the arrests of a handful of midlevel cartel leaders. But, he said, it was ended in 2000 when cartel leaders struck back by kidnapping, torturing and killing a counternarcotics official in the Mexican attorney general’s office, along with two fellow drug agents.

In recent months, Mexico agreed to post a team of D.E.A. agents, C.I.A. operatives and retired American military officials on a Mexican military base to help conduct intelligence operations, bolstering the work of a similar “fusion cell” already in Mexico City.

Meanwhile the Pentagon is steadily overhauling the parts of the military responsible for the drug fight, paying particular attention to some lessons of nearly a decade of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At Northern Command — the military’s Colorado Springs headquarters responsible for North American operations — several top officers with years of experience in fighting Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are poring over intelligence about Mexican drug networks.

One officer said, “The military is trying to take what it did in Afghanistan and do the same in Mexico.”

That’s exactly what some Mexicans are afraid of, said a Mexican political scientist, Denise Dresser, who is an expert on that country’s relations with the United States.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to greater American involvement,” Ms. Dresser said. “But if that’s the way the Mexican government wants to go, it needs to come clean about it. Just look at what we learned from Iraq. Secrecy led to malfeasance. It led to corrupt contracting. It led to torture. It led to instability. And who knows when those problems will be resolved.”


Via HuffPo

MONTERREY, Mexico — Mexicans have endured plenty of horrific crimes during their country’s bloody five-year war against drug gangs, but an arson attack that killed at least 52 people has set a shocking new low for many in this battle-hardened country.

The victims this time weren’t cartel foot soldiers or even migrants resisting forced recruitment by gangs, as were the cases in other attacks. Instead, they were working or gambling at the Casino Royale in an affluent part of this industrial city Thursday when at least eight assailants burst into the building and set it on fire, trapping dozens inside.

As the country took in the grisly details Friday, some said a new, macabre milestone had been reached in a conflict that’s claimed nearly 40,000 people since Calderon launched his drug offensive in December 2006.

President Felipe Calderon signaled the moment’s solemnity during a nationally televised speech when he called for an unprecedented three-day mourning period and labeled the attack the worst against civilians in this country’s recent history.

“We are not confronting common criminals,” the visibly angry president said. “We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits.”

The president gave no indication, however, that he intended to back down from his confrontational policy against drug gangs. In fact, he announced he is sending more federal forces to the city of 1 million people.

Hours later, Calderon appeared in front of the burned-out casino and held a silent, minute-long vigil.

The attack even drew the condemnation of President Barack Obama, who called it “barbaric and reprehensible” in a statement.

In the streets around the casino, people said the latest violence deepened the sense of vulnerability many feel in this northern Mexican city, which had once been known as one of Mexico’s safest. In recent years, however, Monterrey has been ensnared in a turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its offshoot, the Zetas, and is on track for record levels of violence this year.

The Casino Royale itself had been attacked twice before, including in May when gunmen strafed it from the outside.

Elsewhere in the city last month, a gun attack killed 20 people at a bar.

Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal told Radio Formula that of the 29 casinos in his city, 12, including Casino Royale, had violated municipal laws but were allowed to remain open after obtaining federal court injunctions.

“What happened last night was the limit,” said a man nursing a Coke at a hamburger stand across from this city’s morgue, where families streamed in all night to identify bodies. Like many people, he refused to give his name out of fear.

“We don’t know how to protect ourselves or whom we’re talking to. We don’t have security right now.”

The attack has made a particularly strong national impact because many of the victims belonged to a middle class so far mostly untouched by drug war carnage, said Jorge Chabat, an expert in safety and drug trafficking at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

Previous drug war incidents have claimed more victims, such as a mass grave uncovered last year with the bodies of 72 migrants, Chabat said. But the beheadings, dismemberings and other everyday horrors of the drug war have mostly touched people in lower economic classes, he said.

“Obviously, the media impact that this has is greater, because we’re talking about an attack on a civilian population of a certain income,” Chabat said. “Because who was there was from the middle class, the upper middle class of an important city in Mexico with obvious repercussions at a national and international level.”

Thirty-five of the victims were women and 10 men, authorities said, showing the popularity of the games among women who came to play bingo or slots for fun in the afternoons. The gender of the other seven couldn’t be determined.

Authorities showed a surveillance tape Friday of the attack depicting eight or nine men arriving in four cars at the casino and setting fire to the building in a matter of minutes. The gunmen had ordered people to leave before setting the fire, but many instead fled farther inside where authorities said they likely died quickly, the majority from smoke inhalation.

Nuevo Leon state Attorney General Adrian de la Garza told Imagen Informativa radio that police have found three of the cars used by the assailants. He said the vehicles had been reported stolen.

Civil protection authorities and the state Attorney General’s Office are investigating whether the casino had adequate safety measures and emergency exits amid conflicting accounts from survivors that exit doors to the parking area were locked.

Firefighters entering the building to control the fire found 16 bodies of people who apparently tried to take refuge from the gunmen near the emergency exits and became trapped by flames and smoke, authorities said. Others were found in offices and bathrooms.

Jorge Camacho Rincon, civil protection director for the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located, said there had been attacks by gunmen on casinos before but never fires, so the people inside reacted accordingly.

“They sought places to protect themselves from firearms,” he said. “They went running to closed areas.”

Most were found clutching cell phones in their hands, a law-enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name told The Associated Press.

Secretary of the Interior Francisco Blake Mora told a news conference Friday that authorities were already looking for those responsible and were following all lines of investigation. Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina, said state coffers would cover the funerals for 12 victims whose families didn’t have the means.

So far, authorities have failed to establish communication with the legal representatives and owners of casino. They released the name of the company as Vallarta Attractions and Emotions and CYMSA Corp.

The victims, including 10 injured, were either clients or employees of the casino.

Miguel Angel Loera, 50, of Monterrey, had left his job as a chef at a nearby casino for an interview at the Casino Royale because he wanted to change jobs. Sonia de la Pena, 47, was a regular, going to play bingo with her friends several afternoons a week, according to her son, Francisco Tamayo. He still had no word of her Friday. Maria Guadalupe Monsivais, 26, was a hostess.

A colleague last saw Loera a little more than an hour before the attack Thursday afternoon. His family went searching when he didn’t come home from work.

“He never was late arriving home,” said his brother, Juan Loera, 65, who waited with other brothers outside the morgue. On Friday, authorities told them they found Loera’s identification on one of the bodies, but Juan Loera said the face was too burned to recognize.

Across the state of Nuevo Leon, residents were in shock at the loss of innocent life. Several in Monterrey said they had no way to even process what happened.

One tabloid headline declared the collective pain: “Nuevo Leon mourns casino attack.”

A 28-year-old woman who worked across the street from the casino, and who identified herself only as Lucy, said she watched six armed men flee the casino and then saw smoke billow from the building.

For her, it was the worst moment so far in Mexico’s war against organized crime.

“It means more fear, more terror, more lack of safety,” she said. “There is no control.”

“It’s a revelation, proof that they are going to do what they want when they want in the hour that they want.”

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