U.S. drones fight Mx drug trade

WASHINGTON _ Stepping up its involvement in Mexico_s drug war, the Obama administration has begun sending drones deep...

WASHINGTON _ Stepping up its involvement in Mexico_s drug war, the Obama administration has begun sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence that helps locate major traffickers and follow their networks, according to American and Mexican officials.

The Pentagon began flying high-altitude, unarmed drones over Mexican skies last month, American military officials said, in hopes of collecting information to turn over to Mexican law enforcement agencies. Other administration officials said a Homeland Security drone helped Mexican authorities find several suspects linked to the Feb. 15 killing of Jaime Zapata, a United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Immigration agent.

President Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calder__n, formally agreed to continue the surveillance flights during a White House meeting on March 3. The American assistance has been kept secret because of legal restrictions in Mexico and the heated political sensitivities there about sovereignty, the officials said.

Before the outbreak of drug violence in Mexico that has left more than 34,000 dead in the past four years, such an agreement would have been all but unthinkable, they said.

Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security and Mexican officials declined to comment publicly about the introduction of drones in Mexico_s counternarcotics efforts. But some officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said the move was evidence of the two countries_ deepening cooperation in efforts to prevail over a common threat.

In addition to expanding the use of drones, the two leaders agreed to open a counternarcotics _fusion_ center, the second such facility in Mexico, where Mexican and American agencies would work together, the officials said.

In recent years, the United States has steadily stepped up its role in fighting Mexican drug trafficking, though officials offer few details of the cooperation. The greatest growth involves intelligence gathering, with Homeland Security and the American military flying manned aircraft and drones along the United States_ southern border _ and now over Mexican territory _ that are capable of peering deep into Mexico and tracking criminals_ communications and movements, officials said.

In addition, the United States trains thousands of Mexican troops and police officers, collaborates with specially vetted Mexican security units, conducts eavesdropping in Mexico and upgrades Mexican security equipment and intelligence technology, according to American law enforcement and intelligence officials.

_It wasn_t that long ago when there was no way the D.E.A. could conduct the kinds of activities they are doing now,_ said Mike Vigil, a retired chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. _And the only way they_re going to be able to keep doing them is by allowing Mexico to have plausible deniability._

In addition to wariness by Mr. Calder__n_s government about how the American intervention might be perceived at home, the Mexican Constitution prohibits foreign military and law enforcement agents from operating in Mexico except under extremely limited conditions, Mexican officials said, so the legal foundation for such activity may be shaky. In the United States, lawmakers have expressed doubts that Mexico, whose security agencies are rife with corruption, is a reliable partner.

Before Mr. Obama met with Mr. Calder__n at the White House, diplomatic tensions threatened to weaken the cooperation between their governments. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks had reported criticism of the Mexican government by American diplomats, setting off a firestorm of resentment in Mexico. Then in February, outrage in Washington over Mr. Zapata_s murder prompted Mexican officials to complain that the United States government paid attention to drug violence only when it took the life of an American citizen.

In the end, however, mutual interests prevailed in the March 3 meeting after a frank exchange of grievances, Mexican and American officials said.

Mr. Calder__n told Mr. Obama that his country had borne the brunt of a scourge driven by American guns and drug consumption, and urged the United States to do more to help. Mr. Obama, worried about Mexico falling into chaos and about violence spilling over the border, said his administration was eager to play a more central role, the officials said.

The leaders emphasized _the value of information sharing,_ a senior Mexican official said, adding that they recognized _the responsibilities shared by both governments in the fight against criminal organizations on both sides of the border._

A senior American administration official noted that all _counternarcotics activities were conducted at the request and direction of the Mexican government._

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