The Pentagon is stepping up aid for Mexico’s bloody drug war with a new U.S.-based special operations headquarters to teach Mexican security forces how to hunt drug cartels the same way special operations teams hunt al-Qaida, according to documents and interviews with several U.S. officials.
Such assistance could help newly elected Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto establish a military force to focus on drug criminal networks that have terrorized Mexico’s northern states and threatened the Southwest border. Mexican officials say warring gangs have killed at least 70,000 people between 2006 and 2012.
Based at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, Special Operations Command-North will build on a commando program that has brought Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement officials to study U.S. counterterrorist operations from the U.S. to the war zones, to show them how special operations troops built an interagency network to target al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers.
The special operations team in Northcom will be turned into a new headquarters, established in a Dec. 31 memo signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, that will be led by a general instead of a colonel. This move gives the group more autonomy, and the number of people could eventually triple from 30 to 150, meaning the headquarters could expand its training missions with the Mexicans even though no new money is being assigned to the mission.
The special operations program has already helped Mexican officials set up their own intelligence center in Mexico City to target criminal networks, patterned after similar centers in war zones built to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq, two current U.S. officials said.