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Redefining Intelligence: The Drug Enforcement Agency's War in Mexico

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is reinventing the use of American intelligence assets. Drawing on lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, the agency has expanded the use of informants, drones, and federal agents to combat Mexico’s transnational crimina

l syndicates.

Recently, the DEA has provided crucial support to Mexican law enforcement. In February 2011, DEA informants helped Mexican officials apprehend suspects linked to the death of Customs, Immigration, and Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata. Another DEA informant led Mexican authorities to Mansour Arbabsiar, who allegedly plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC. According to officials, Arbabsiar traveled to Mexico intending to meet with members of Los Zetas, a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Instead, Arbabsiar met with a DEA informant, who informed authorities of the plot. Arbabsiar was arrested upon reentering the United States.

In March 2011, the DEA expanded the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Initially, the use of the drones in was secret. However in March, the United States and Mexico publicly agreed to conduct drone flights over Mexico. Officials emphasized that drone flights were under the strict control and supervision of Mexican authorities.

Additionally, DEA agents have played an increasingly important role in Mexican ground operations. Earlier this year, agents cooperated with a Mexican counternarcotics unit in an operation to arrest Jose Antonio Hernandez Acosta. Officials believed Hernandez Acosta was responsible for hundreds of deaths in Ciudad Juarez, including the deaths of two American consulate employees. During the search for Hernandez Acosta, DEA agents provided real time intelligence to Mexican law enforcement officers.

Further, DEA agents laundered millions of dollars from Mexican cartels in an effort to learn how the cartels operate. During some operations, DEA agents accompanied undercover Mexican agents while they collected drug traffickers’ cash. Subsequently, American agents placed the cash in accounts selected by the traffickers or in accounts set up by the agents.

Additionally, the United States and Mexico agreed to permit DEA and CIA agents to use an intelligence post on a Mexican military base. The post is modeled after the “fusion intelligence centers” that the United

States uses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the DEA’s success, Mexican and American lawmakers are skeptical about the DEA’s new role. Under Mexican law, the legal basis for American operations in Mexico is unclear. The Mexican Constitution prohibits foreign military and law enforcement officials from conducting operations in Mexico, except in extremely limited situations.

Accordingly, because Mexico is kept in the dark about American intelligence assets in Mexico, the legal basis for DEA intelligence operations is unclear. The legality of the DEA’s money laundering operation is also ambiguous. Lawmakers worry that instead of fighting crime the DEA is facilitating crime. In the United States, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) noted that money laundering operations were banned by Mexico in 1998 after American agents conducted one but failed to inform Mexican authorities. Representative Issa has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to brief his staff on the DEA’s activities by Thursday. Additionally, Mexican lawmakers have characterized the DEA’s money laundering operation as a violation of the trust between Mexico and the United States.

Despite the criticism, supporters of the DEA stress the benefits of the DEA’s new role in Mexico. Current and former DEA agents note that access to the cartels’ bank accounts allows agents to penetrate deep into drug trafficking organizations. Other supporters argue that a network of informants gives the DEA access to better intelligence.

Photo obtained from


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