US Training of Mexican Troops Has Escalated in Step With Mexico’s Murder Rate

Boots-On-The-Ground Instruction Carried Out by US Military in Mexico City, Campeche and Chiapas — Home of the Zapatistas

US training of Mexican military forces spiked in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, coinciding with a sharp rise in drug-war homicides in Mexico, an analysis of records made public under the Foreign Assistance Act show.

The training in those two years, funded by the US Department of Defense, and to a lesser extent by the US Department of State, covered a wide range of military skill sets and involved hundreds of training programs offered in the US to Mexican forces as well as dozens (at least 60) provided inside Mexico.

For example, in Mexico City during that two-year period, the US military provided to Mexican security forces training in, among other tactics, “asymmetrical conflict,” “anti-terrorism,” and “open-source intelligence” gathering. US military training also was provided in other parts of Mexico, including the state of Campeche, where infantry, marksmanship and intelligence programs were offered to Mexican troops; and in Chiapas, in fiscal 2011, infantry training was provided to Mexican Marines over two-week periods in April and September.

The latter training programs might be considered particularly sensitive for Mexican politics, given the Mexican state of Chiapas is home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials).

The Zapatistas are a rebel indigenous group governing more than 1,000 rural communities that rose up in arms in 1994. However, since peace talks were initiated in 1995, the Zapatistas have not fired a shot and have converted to peaceful and civil resistance.

In the 1990s, under Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, a member of the PRI Party, an unsuccessful, violent counter-insurgency campaign was waged against the Zapatistas that involved the use of both the Mexican military and civilian paramilitary forces — as part of an effort to destroy the indigenous movement and its autonomous communities.

On another sensitive front for Latin American/US relations, Foreign Assistance Act records reveal that US military training also was provided to Mexican soldiers in fiscal 2010 and 2011 by the US Department of Defense’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The Institute was formerly the School of the Americas, which, in past decades, provided training to some of the most notorious violators of human rights in Latin America.

WHINSEC, now reportedly reformed and sensitive to human rights, offered at least 10 different training programs (some multiple times) to Mexican troops in fiscal 2010 and 2011 in subjects such as “counter-narco-terrorism,” “joint operations” and “counterdrug ops,” according to data provided to Congress under the requirements of the Foreign Assistance Act.

US officials interviewed by Narco News contend that any correlation between increased US military training and rising homicide rates in Mexico is nothing more than “anecdotal." They argue further that, based on the US military’s internal “classified” assessments, there is no evidence that Mexican troops trained by the US are subsequently being drafted into organized crime rings or otherwise involved in narco-trafficking corruption. In fact, a DoD official actually argues that the homicide rate in Mexico could likely be reduced if there were a more “persistent” use of military force to counter the “cartel” violence in affected regions in Mexico.

However, the correlation between US training and Mexico’s homicide rate remains striking, and there is public-source evidence pointing to significant corruption within Mexico’s military that arguably could exploit US military training. Also, the trajectory of the drug war to date makes clear that the more Mexican security forces attack criminal organizations, the more violence those groups commit, including against civilians, to protect their markets and turf from both the government and rival organizations.

The hard-nosed military strategy pursued by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón in prosecuting the drug war, as a result, has failed to adequately account for the blowback on the civilian population of Mexico, some critics charge.

Mexico’s new president, PRI Party member Enrique Peña Nieto, is promising a different course in the drug-war conflict, recently announcing plans to direct a considerable amount of funding, $9.2 billion (US dollars) this year, to social programs — though he offers few specifics. Peña Nieto also is promising to put an emphasis on aggressively pursuing street-level crime (extortion, kidnapping, gang violence) as opposed to targeting narco-trafficking “kingpins” — the latter a strategy pursued at great cost by his PAN Party predecessor.

But is Peña Nieto’s drug-war strategy really that much different than Calderón’s, or is his policy rhetoric simply a mask concealing a much-less innovative plan — an approach already being pursued by the Mexican security forces, with US help, for years now?

The Numbers

In fiscal 2006, ended Sept. 30 of that year, just prior to Calderón assuming the presidency in December, total funding for US training provided to Mexican troops totaled $1.3 million. In fiscal 2010 (which began Oct. 1, 2009), that figure jumped to $12.6 million; and a year later, for fiscal 2011 (the latest year for which finalized figures are available), US funding jumped to $15.2 million.

Likewise, the total number of Mexican security forces trained annually by the US military exploded from 632 in fiscal 2006 to 2,206 in fiscal 2011, according to figures released under the Foreign Assistance Act.

Homicides in Mexico totaled 10,452 in 2006, according to INEGI (the Mexican State Statistics Agency). In 2009, that number jumped to 19,803; and then to 25,757 in 2010; in 2011, the number rose again, to 27,213.

Though the uptick in Mexican homicides began in 2008, within a year of then-President Calderón’s deploying the Mexican military in large numbers in the drug war, the three-year period (2009-2011) in which Mexican homicides hit a zenith during his presidency clearly tracks closely with the steep increase in US military training provided to Mexican troops over that same period.

That training is overseen by US Northern Command (Northcom), a DoD branch created in 2002 that is responsible for US homeland defense as well as security cooperation efforts with The Bahamas, Canada and Mexico.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for Northcom, explains that the Mexican government ultimately controls the US military training provided to Mexico, whether funded by DoD or the State Department.

“The way it’s done is that it’s up to the Mexico to decide what training we [the US military] provide,” Kucharek says. “We provide them with a list [of options], and the Mexican military decides what they want.”

Kucharek adds that “we [DoD] do not see the training as counter-productive” and stresses that any perceived relationship between US funding for military training for Mexico and that nation’s homicide rate is “anecdotal.” He insists there is no real evidence to show that the US-trained Mexican soldiers are joining the ranks of criminal groups and committing murders.

“We do not see it that way,” he says. “We think journalists are making a leap (when they claim Mexican soldiers are joining organized crime in large numbers). Just so you know, we have our own way to check on those dynamics. … I think what is being taken as fact (with respect to Mexican soldiers trained by the US later being linked to narco-trafficking) may not, in fact, be fact.”

Kucharek, in essence, says the blame for Mexico’s huge homicide problem (more than 120,000 murdered and some 25,000 disappeared over Calderón’s term in office) has more to do with inadequate military force.

“It is a war among cartels who themselves are under increasing pressure [by Calderón’s military strategy],” he says. “Where it is not working, it is because of the lack of persistent force in some areas of Mexico to combat it [narco-violence].

“[New Mexican President] Peña Nieto now wants to sink more money into social programs as an alternative to the lure of the cartels,” Kucharek adds. “We’ll see if that works, but expect military-to-military and security cooperation [between the US and Mexico] to continue.”

Kucharek’s bullishness on the Mexican military and the benefits of US training, though, doesn’t seem to square with the facts on the ground in Mexico that are not classified. A January 2013 report by Human Rights Watch points out that between January 2007 and April 2012, the Mexican military opened some 5,000 investigations into human rights violations carried out by Mexican soldiers against civilians, yet “military judges sentenced only 38 military personnel for human rights violations.”

And corruption within the Mexican military is not a low-level problem, either. Last year, a Mexican Army general and three retired officers (two of them former generals) were arrested and accused of having ties to narco-traffickers. But Mexican generals being accused of links to narco-traffickers is nothing new. In the mid-1990s, Mexico’s drug czar, a former Army general, also was accused, and later convicted, of providing protection to the head of the Juarez Cartel.

Over the course of the Calderón administration, more than 16,000 Mexican soldiers were convicted of desertion — a figure that does not include the tens of thousands of additional soldiers who deserted, and were not caught, but by the mere act of deserting are now branded criminals. How do you think those individuals are now making a living?

And then we have the Zetas, a fierce organized crime group operating in Mexico that is highly skilled in paramilitary tactics — such as intelligence gathering, surveillance and marksmanship. The Zetas were started by former Mexican special-ops soldiers who were assisted by members of a Guatemalan special-forces unit, the Kaibiles, according to a DEA Powerpoint presentation obtained by Narco News previously.

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission has this to say about the Kaibiles:

While former members of Guatemala’s Elite Special Forces Unit (Kaibiles) are finally being sentenced for human rights atrocities committed during the 36-year internal armed conflict, Guatemala continues to train Kaibiles and their role is expanding to include combating organized crime.

Despite a congressional ban restricting direct funding to the Guatemalan army due to its involvement in brutal violence, the United States continues to support, train, and coordinate with the Kaibiles.

So it seems the path between US military training of Mexican security forces and their exploitation by organized crime in Mexico may not always be direct, but it certainly can’t be declared nonexistent either.

“My take is we made a huge investment of resources in Mexico to support Calderón’s [drug-war] policy that did not work and only increased the bloodshed, and put innocent people in the crossfire,” says Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America — an independent, nongovernmental group focused on shaping US policy to support human rights and social justice in Latin America. “[The Calderón administration] did not reform [Mexico’s] security services, but just put them into the street [to fight the drug war]. And we helped to supply the equipment [not measured in the Foreign Assistance Act figures] and training for that. Calderón should have had a different policy that took into account civilians more.”

The Laboratory

Although recently empowered Mexican President Peña Nieto is promising a new course in Mexico’s approach to the drug war, there are already signs that it won’t do much to change the underlying dynamics of the carnage in Mexico’s cities and rural communities.

On one front, the Peña Nieto administration plans to take a page out of the lessons learned from the US war in Vietnam by making an effort to reduce and control media coverage of drug-war violence and death. According to Mexican reports, he is urging the media to make an effort to find an “equilibrium” between bad and good news, and his administration also is tightly controlling the perp walks, information and data released about the drug war.

“What Peña Nieto is doing is ... sweeping violence under the rug in hopes that no one notices,” security expert Jorge Chabat said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It can be effective in the short term, until the violence becomes so obvious that you can’t change the subject.”

Peña Nieto also plans to stand up a paramilitary force, composed of ex-soldiers, that could eventually be some 40,000 strong. Peña Nieto also hopes to created a single, consolidated national police force. With these tools, he says, the Mexican military can be replaced as the primary enforcer of security in the drug war in Mexico, and the battle can be refocused from hunting down the top narco-capos to stemming street violence and other crimes against the community, such as extortion and kidnappings.

But is this focus on street-level violence really anything new?

A trail of email correspondence involving a Mexican diplomat obtained by the secret-spilling organization WikiLeaks seems to show that the Mexican military has been focused on “surgically” attacking street-level crime since at least 2009, when it made Ciduad Juarez, a Mexican border city that abuts El Paso, Texas, a laboratory for the strategy.

The description in the emails obtained by WikiLeaks of the Mexican diplomat, codenamed MX1, reveals that he doubled as a confidential source for a US-based private intelligence firm called Stratfor. The details revealed about MX1 via his email correspondence with Stratfor match the publicly available information on Fernando de la Mora Salcedo — a Mexican foreign service officer who studied law at the University of New Mexico, served in the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas, and was later stationed in the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix (though, sources indicate, he appears to have since been recalled to Mexico).

MX1, in one of the emails released by WikiLeaks, describes the Mexican military’s mission in Juarez in 2009 (the very year Mexico’s homicide rate began to explode) as involving a special-operations and intelligence-unit component that was embedded within the larger Mexican military force. These special units were charged with carrying out “surgical strikes” against narco-trafficking “cells” and street criminals.

An even more troubling revelation in the MX1 email trail is what the Mexican diplomat describes in a July 13, 2009, email as a “change in strategy” in the Mexican troop deployment in Juarez — a change that refocused the mission on a more “modest goal.”

From a July 13, 2009, MX1 email correspondence:

The larger picture of the change in strategy has to do with a more modest goal. As the major cartels have all guaranteed routes into the US, the addiction problem [in] Juarez is causing most of the violence. About 80% of kidnapping victims that survived that you talk to mention that their captors seemed to be high on something.

Therefore, a major component of the [Mexican military] strategy will be to prevent kidnappings and the like by directing efforts against drug addicts and gangs. Gangs are presenting major problems because they are pissed off at each other and their cartel bosses because they are not getting what they were promised. The more modest goal of combating the social violence is supposed to give some breathing room to the [cartel] bosses so that they can issue orders to calm things down. [Emphasis added.]

Is the strategy outlined by MX1 really that much different from Peña Nieto’s plan to essentially back off pursuit of the leadership of the “major cartels” and instead attack street-level crime — with the help of former Mexican soldiers re-branded as a paramilitary force. If anything, utilizing paramilitaries, instead of the military, may open the door to even more deadly consequences for an even larger number of innocent citizens and purely political targets. Could that be why, in part, Peña Nieto’s administration is now so intent on controlling the media message about the drug war?

Time will tell.

But one thing is clear. US officials do not appear poised to slow down the provision of military training — special-operations, intelligence and infantry-readiness training, etc. — that is necessary for Peña Nieto to accomplish his drug-war objectives.

Peter Valasco, spokesman for the US State Department, stated the following in an email to Narco News:

When President Obama met with then President-elect Peña Nieto on November 27 [2012], the two leaders reiterated our shared commitment to working together to meet our common citizen security and rule of law challenges. The United States remains committed to working in partnership with Mexico, and the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, to address our shared security challenges. 

We commend the government and people of Mexico for their courage and commitment to combat criminals and corruption while strengthening institutions. The government has taken major steps, including professionalizing its police forces; instituting anti-corruption initiatives; and establishing long-term judicial reforms.  We are committed to working in partnership with Mexico and look forward to advancing common goals for both our nations in the coming years with the Peña Nieto administration.

The next experiment in the drug-war laboratory is set to unfold. And it seems Mexico’s civilian population still finds itself in the Petri dish.

Stay tuned….

To see the full reports on US military training made to Congress under the Foreign Assistance Act, click on these links:

Fiscal Year 2010

Fiscal Year 2011

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