US-Mexican drug sting signals a shift in relationship

The United States and Mexico have long worked together to fight the drug trade, but a recent operation highlighted a new level of cooperation.

On a recent Friday morning, residents in and around Lukeville, Ariz., woke to the sounds of several Mexican law enforcement helicopters hovering over the dust speck of a border town. 

The Black Hawks flying in United States airspace were a rare sight, one made even more unusual by a swarm of American agents on the ground.

The Americans were there to aid Mexico’s federal police as they launched an attack from Arizona against suspected members of the Sinaloa cartel believed to be operating from the outskirts of Sonoyta, Sonora, which shares a stretch of the border with Lukeville. The sting netted 22 arrests – two suspects died in a shootout, authorities said.

The US-Mexico operation, dubbed Diablo Express, could signal a new model of joint enforcement for dealing with drug trafficking that can break down borders when it comes to cooperation, analysts say.

“It’s new, it’s innovative, and I think it’s a recognition by Mexico that they’re just not going to be able to do it by themselves,” says Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University in Houston.

Although US law enforcement agents have long worked with their counterparts in Mexico, albeit with restrictions, “what is unique here is that what we have is definitely much greater, broader, and deeper cooperation between the two countries on law enforcement operations,” Mr. Payan adds.

He points to the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, a task force of US and Canadian law enforcement agencies on the northern border, as a partnership that also could work on the southern border.

If joint operations like the one that unfolded in Arizona Jan. 29 have happened elsewhere – as a 2011 New York Times story suggests – they are still rare and secretive. But that may be changing as more open cross-border collaboration in the fight against organized crime operating in both countries grows.

In Arizona, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), acknowledged its role and that of several other US agencies collaborating in the operation in a statement that contained other details.

“The targeted Sinaloa cell has been responsible for the importation of millions of pounds of illegal drugs, including marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, into the United States from Mexico during its existence,” the statement read. “The organization is also responsible for the smuggling of millions of dollars in U.S. currency, along with weapons, into Mexico.”

Authorities seized a cache of assault weapons, handguns and more than 500 pounds of marijuana in Sonoyta, considered key in a drug smuggling corridor leading into the US. Despite a drop in seizures, border agents last fiscal year confiscated more drugs in Arizona than in any of the other border states – 928,858 pounds of marijuana and other narcotics from October 2014 to September 2015. Along the entire Southwest border, drug seizures totaled 2,137,428 pounds.

The sting came less than a month after the recapture of Sinaloa cartel boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, who had twice escaped from Mexico prisons. Although his Jan. 8 arrest will have little effect on the drug enterprise’s distribution network, analysts say, the Arizona cross-border operation shows intensified US efforts to dismantle the powerful criminal enterprise in the midst of its ravaging heroin epidemic.

“Joint operations such as Lukeville’s could accelerate that breakdown,” Payan says.

Anthony Coulson, the former agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office, does not recall a similar cross-border operation.

“It was unique,” he says. “But it is very telling that this operation had to be staged from the United States and it could not be staged from Mexico because they would’ve lost operational security.”

The well-documented pervasiveness of corruption in Mexico’s law enforcement communities has long worried people like Mr. Coulson and prompted extra precautions in the US that include intensive vetting of officers undergoing training here. In combating drug trafficking, Mexico’s federal forces frequently keep local institutions in the dark, as happened in Sonoyta, about any ongoing investigations in their communities.

“What happens in Mexico is that very often the greatest amount of corruption is at the state and local level,” Payan says. The US gets around that by working with individuals who have been pre-selected and recruited for special operations.

“When you're up against truly transnational organized crime, you need transnational law enforcement operations," he adds. “And because the borderline is blurred for organized crime, then it cannot be hardened for law enforcement.”

And despite the fact that both the US and Mexico sometimes downplay mutual enforcement cooperation for reasons of sovereignty, among others, there are other signs that point to a paradigm shift.

Last year, for example, Mexico loosened its strict gun rules to allow immigration and customs agents to carry their weapons south of the border. And even though changes in the law are limited and appear aimed at speeding up joint border inspections, they are nonetheless significant, says Adam Isacson, a security analyst with the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA).

“That’s a big change,” Mr. Isacson says.

Ev Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, agrees that increased cross-border collaboration is a good idea, but he says the US-Mexico war on drugs must go well beyond joint law enforcement operations.

“There is a whole set of social, economic, and security problems that Mexico and the United States share, and because the origins of the problems are shared, the solutions have to be shared too.”

And as mutual cooperation increases in visibility, both the US and Mexico should strive for greater transparency about joint law enforcement activities, he adds.

“It’s a political lesson that everyone has learned that these things are just not secret anymore and it probably would be better for all concerned if they just admit that.”

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