Since the internal war in Mexico began almost a decade ago, pinning the Mexican government and its security agencies against the country’s numerous drug cartels, there have been several incidents that make analysts wonder whether the situation is improving — or if things are getting worse.
For example, the February 2014 arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the legendary leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is an ideal example of Mexican forces (with U.S. intelligence support) successfully cutting off the head of one of the country’s most dreaded and omnipotent cartels. However, if Guzman’s arrest brought about local (and international) support for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, this positive development quickly came crashing down with the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. It is believed that local authorities were behind the disappearance of the students, widely presumed dead (the remains of at least one victim have been identified). Their disappearance became a rallying cry for the general population, which has protested governmental corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and abuses for months.
Moreover, in spite of the capture of high-profile cartel leaders, cartel members have shown little, if any, concern when it comes to attacking the country’s security forces. Case in point: A few weeks ago 15 Mexican police officers were killed and five were injured in an ambush in Jalisco. The Jalisco-New Generation Cartel is believed to have orchestrated the attack to avenge the recent death of one of their own, Heriberto Acevedo (AKA “El Gringo”), who was targeted by police.
In other words, it is hard to determine if the situation in Mexico is improving, deteriorating, or morphing into a bizarre (and deadly) status quo.
Nevertheless, in recent years one aspect of Mexico’s internal strife has remained generally constant — U.S. support for its neighbor’s security agencies. As previously mentioned, Washington has cooperated with Mexico to crack down on narco cartels. Some of the most-well known initiatives include intelligence aid. Mexican media has reported that unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly known as drones) were utilized to tap into the telephone calls of the aforementioned “Chapo” Guzman, which helped locate him for his eventual capture. Another example occurred in 2012, when there was a bizarre incident in which two CIA agents were shot at by the Mexican federal police in Mexico City, making many wonder how much of an intelligence presence the U.S. has in Mexico. Certainly it would not be surprising if agents from institutions like the Drug Enforcement Administration currently operate on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, in bordering states like Baja California, Chihuahua or the restive Tamaulipas.
However, one important initiative regarding U.S.-Mexico cooperation that often goes underreported is weapons sales. This past year, the U.S. sold 18 Black Hawk helicopters to its Mexican partners for internal security operations. Additionally, on March 17, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department had approved the sale of three additional UH-60M Black Hawks along with “associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of $110 million.” The DSCA’s press release goes on to explain that this sale supports the “foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a strategic partner [as] Mexico has been a strong partner in combating organized crime and drug trafficking organizations.”
It is worth noting that the second Black Hawks deal is not the only recent weapons deal between Washington and Mexico City. Also in March, the U.S. donated three X-ray units, type Z Backscatter Van, which will be utilized by the Mexican Navy to crack down on drugs and weapons smuggling. Finally, also in March, the Mexican Air Force reported the purchase of 15 light Bell helicopters, type 407GX, from Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of Textron (headquartered in Rhode Island). The new units will be deployed to Jalisco, in Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
The aforementioned arms sales and others, which this commentary will not address in the interest of brevity, highlight the fact that the Mexican armed forces are undergoing a renovation process, in which new equipment is being acquired. Fortunately for the Latin American nation, the U.S. has proved to be a reliable weapons merchant as various types of high-tech military equipment have made their way from the U.S. to Mexico, with the goal of cracking down on narco cartels. Then again, how well this new military equipment has been utilized to defeat cartels is debatable. There have certainly been major successes, but for every capture (or elimination) of a drug lord, comes news about bold and deadly attacks against Mexican security forces, such as the recent murder of 15 police officers in Jalisco.
Even with modern military equipment and ongoing U.S. support at various levels, the battle for Mexico is nowhere close to being won.