Pubdate: Thu, 18 Feb 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, top of page, continued on page A15
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Reporting from Nogales, Ariz.


U.S. and Mexican Forces, Sharing Patrols for the First Time, Take on 
Drugs, Migration

In a politically sensitive operation at the Arizona-Mexico border, 
U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican federal police officers are 
training together, sharing intelligence and coordinating patrols for 
the first time.

The goal of the historic partnership: a systematic joint attack on 
northbound flows of drugs and migrants, and southbound shipments of 
guns and cash. It is part of a major, unannounced crackdown started 
in recent months involving hundreds of U.S. and Mexican officers in 
the border's busiest smuggling corridor.

The initiative appears likely to expand. Homeland Security Secretary 
Janet Napolitano and Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia 
Luna will sign a declaration Thursday in Mexico City agreeing to 
replicate the experiment. Eventually, officials say, joint operations 
borderwide could lead to the creation of a Mexican force serving as a 
counterpart to the Border Patrol -- an agency once regarded with 
nationalistic aversion in Mexico.

"We are planting a seed of binational cooperation that interests all 
of us," Mexican federal police Cmdr. Armando Trevino said Tuesday in 
Nogales. "We are fighting a common enemy. We are going to work 
together like friends, like comrades, like brothers."

Political urgency drives both sides. The Obama administration needs 
results on border security in its uphill campaign for immigration 
reform. Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government wants progress 
in its war on drug mafias.

But the unprecedented effort faces imposing obstacles: violent drug 
cartels, long-standing Mexican reluctance to interfere with illegal 
immigration into the United States and a legacy of corruption that 
has scuttled past enforcement efforts.

"There's so much potential for corruption," said Jennifer Allen, 
executive director of the Border Action Network, a migrant advocate 
group in Arizona. "It could be destined for failure. . . . Right now 
law enforcement in Mexico cannot compete with the trafficking 
networks. It can't compete with the money, the power."

In the 1990s, the Border Patrol worked closely with Grupo Beta, an 
elite Mexican police unit. After a promising start, the unit faltered 
under allegations of wrongdoing and functions today as an unarmed 
humanitarian agency.

Nonetheless, Tuesday's visit by Trevino was full of signs that times 
are changing. The 69-year-old lean, white-haired, retired army 
general leads the Sonora, Mexico, contingent of the federal 
preventive police, which conducts street-level enforcement involving 
major crimes and patrols highways and airports.

Trevino watched a training session in which green-uniformed U.S. 
instructors shouted directions as nine Mexican officers in blue 
uniforms, goggles and helmets roared through mud and water on 
all-terrain vehicles that the Border Patrol uses to chase border-crossers.

Mexican officers, who undergo U.S. background checks, also train in 
close-quarters firearms techniques and medical rescue skills. The 
Border Patrol plans to vet and train several hundred Mexican federal 
officers who also will learn behavioral analysis and ways to detect 
contraband concealed in vehicles.

Trevino and U.S. chiefs took a rattling hour's drive over a dirt 
mountain road to inspect a remote base housing a dozen live-in 
agents. Trevino plans to set up two "mirror" bases south of the U.S. 
outposts to interdict smugglers, who use horses and ultra-light 
aircraft in the rugged terrain.

Joint U.S.-Mexican operations got underway when a detachment of 
Mexican federal police arrived in the Mexican state of Sonora about 
two months ago. They began communicating daily with the Americans and 
responded to security threats, disrupting smugglers' hilltop lookouts 
and breaking up rock-throwing gangs who often clash with U.S. agents 
in melees that have resulted in injuries, shootings and diplomatic tensions.

"There has been a decrease in rockings after their deployment," said 
Al White, the Border Patrol agent-in-charge in Nogales.

The Mexican forces also have developed new southern barriers to 
smuggling drugs and people. Trevino has deployed five roving 
checkpoints in Sonora that have pushed marijuana traffickers west 
from traditional land routes to emerging, more complicated maritime 
smuggling efforts on the Sea of Cortez, officials say.

The Border Patrol will send two liaison agents to Trevino's 
headquarters in Hermosillo; two Mexican officers will work at the 
Border Patrol station in Nogales.

"The coordination will make our pursuits more flexible so we can stop 
criminals from ducking back and forth across the border," Trevino 
told his U.S. counterparts, adding that his agency "is most ready to 
seal the border to put an end to this organized crime."

However, Trevino said that while his officers aggressively pursue 
smugglers, they do not intend to interfere with Mexicans crossing 
north illegally if there is no evidence of other criminal activity. 
The policy is dictated by longtime Mexican political sensitivity and 
public opinion, experts say.

Nonetheless, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan praised the 
Arizona-Sonora model as part of an enforcement "sea change" resulting 
from government cooperation and the rising frequency of drug 
traffickers who also smuggle people.

"Drug smuggling organizations have diversified their portfolio," he 
said in an interview. "As organized crime has developed its 
footprint, we have to do so as well and combat all kinds of trafficking."

Border Patrol officials say the Mexican anti-smuggling effort helps 
disrupt the flow of illegal migrants and is the most they can hope 
for at the present time. Smugglers have retaliated against the 
five-month U.S. crackdown, dubbed the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats.

Gunmen with automatic rifles wounded a Border Patrol agent in 
December. A month earlier, a sniper on Mexican turf fired volleys at 
the U.S. port of entry, causing havoc but no injuries. Officials 
suspect it was payback for the seizure of $300,000 by U.S. inspectors.

In addition to the more recent cooperation with Mexico, U.S. border 
agencies have deployed extra personnel in the Tucson sector, which 
leads the southwest border in arrests and marijuana busts.

They have begun concerted scrutiny of southbound traffic and 
pedestrians, a rare practice at the international line. The checks 
have enabled inspectors to seize $2.2 million in smuggled cash and 
identify more than 3,000 illegal immigrants since October. Although 
U.S. officers have seized only five weapons in that period, Mexican 
customs inspectors found 41 assault rifles hidden in a vehicle a month ago.

Bolstered defenses have caused an odd reverse scenario: Smugglers 
based in Tucson and Phoenix occasionally try to smuggle people and 
goods south into Mexico, officials say.

Meanwhile, the Sinaloa drug cartel has launched an offensive to take 
control of Nogales, Mexico, from the Beltran Leyva cartel. January 
brought 40 killings in the city and a spate of attacks on police 
officials. There are fears that gangsters could target the Border 
Patrol's new Mexican allies.

"Yes, it could increase danger for us," said Capt. Eduardo Pena, a 
23-year veteran, after the training session. "But we are not going to 
back down."

The cultural change resulting from the joint operation seems 
profound. For years, the Border Patrol had a negative image among 
many Mexicans and Latinos, fed by film stereotypes of sadistic, 
racist agents. The caricature obscured the reality that many U.S. 
border agents are Latino and that the Border Patrol has improved 
relationships with Mexican consulates and migrant advocates.

But U.S. and Mexican officers admit the alliance would have been hard 
to imagine not long ago.

"It's historic," Pena said. "I was based in Tijuana 15 years ago, and 
there were bad feuds between the federal police and the Border 
Patrol. There was a bad image, the old ugly image of the Border 
Patrol. But now there is a new partnership. Good citizens won't 
dislike this collaboration. Criminals will dislike it." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake