Foreign Policy Blogs

What Lugar Doesn't Know: US-Mexico Policy Means 'Hands-Off' for US Investigators

Mexico CityIn a September 26th speech to Mexican prosecutors, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind), top dog on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a ramped-up response to cartel violence in Mexico:

Mexico’s drug wars have taken on some characteristics of a narco-insurgency. Even if they have no ideological or revolutionary intent, the cartels are pursuing political objectives in addition to their economic goals. They are attempting to limit or deny government control over parts of Mexico.

We have an altruistic interest in helping our Mexican partners overcome the crime syndicates that threaten Mexico’s security. But we also have a deep self-interest in this objective. Most of the violence has stayed south of the border, but there is a growing infrastructure in the United States tied to the Mexican cartels, including distribution networks, safe houses, and money laundering operations. In other words, the problem is already in the interior of the United States — it is not just a border issue.

Moreover, the viability of Mexico has defining implications for all of Central America, and it will deeply influence the future of the Caribbean and South America. Given Mexico’s size, geographic location, and cultural importance, the ambitions of many Latin American countries will suffer if Mexican economic and social progress is restrained by a descent into cartel-dominated lawlessness.

For our part, the United States should undertake a broad review of further steps the U.S. military and the intelligence community could take to help combat the Mexican cartels in association with the Mexican government. These might include new ways to jointly deploy aviation, surveillance and intelligence assets…ultimate victory in this war will require improving capabilities and adapting tactics to meet evolving cartel threats.

Lugar’s remarks are right on the money, as are calls by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who have countered Obama’s offer to send 1200 National Guardsmen with a alternative figure of 6,000 or more. Especially noteworthy is Lugar’s admission that cartel-triggered violence is not just a border problem anymore–“the problem (a narco-insurgency) is already in the interior of the United States.”

Talking tough is one thing, however, and making it happen is another.

Right now, the United States is prohibited by treaty from conducting unilateral investigations into activities linked to Mexican criminals, even when cartel members cross over the US border to harass, threaten, attack and murder US citizens.

So what’s left?

The same old recommendations endorsed in Lugar’s remarks–more aerial surveillance and intelligence cooperation–rhetorical ‘evergreens’ politicians and their speechwriters fall back on when real change is a political no-go.

Aerial surveillance and better intel sharing hardy qualify as ‘tactics designed to meet evolving cartel threats.’ Indeed, US sources in federal law enforcement report the aerial surveillance center in Mexico City, an off-shoot of the Merida Initiative, is home to one solitary US agent, surrounded by Mexican colleagues frantic to relocate to the US before their own country, as they frequently put it,  ‘implodes.’

Re intel sharing–anyone who’s worked toward ending Mexico’s drug violence and cartel trafficking will tell you the only channels of communication that remain open and reliable are the ones manned by the traffickers, their cronies and accomplices.

Brownsville Agreement and Operation Casablanca

Meaningful  US intervention, the kind we need to counter Mexico’s spreading violence,  has been barred since 1998, when Janet Reno and her Mexican counterpart, Attorney General Jorge Madraso, signed the Brownsville Agreement, a response to Mexico’s outrage over  a covert and hugely successful US money laundering investigation tagged Operation Casablanca.

The US Customs investigation traced cartel involvement to the highest levels of the Mexican Government. Operation Casablanca also resulted in the indictment of 3 Mexican banks and 4 Venezuelan banks before US officials, caught off-guard by the sharks in their nets, shut the operation down.

The Brownsville Agreement, a treaty carrying the weight of law, forbids the US government or any of its agencies from any involvement, investigatory or otherwise,  in matters ‘sensitive’ to ‘Mexican sovereignty’ — without the express permission and participation of  Mexican authorities.

Subtext: the treaty gives everyone in Mexico with something to hide time to straighten out their affairs long before US investigators show up.

Indeed, the Brownsville Agreement means ‘hands-off’ for the United States, a fact bound to short-circuit any recommendations Lugar, Brewer, McCain or any other US official may envision as a way to stop the spreading violence in Mexico.

Massacre of Mexican Federal Police

By the time the Brownsville Agreement rolled around, Customs SAC John Hensley, was already a seasoned reporter of drug violence in Mexico.

In 1991, US Customs agents were directed to offer air support to Mexican Federal Police in an operation aimed at stopping an air shipment of Colombian cocaine. The US Customs agents, circling in helicopters and a Citation jet, watched in horror as Mexican Federal Police, moving toward their target on the ground, were suddenly attacked and killed by members of their own Mexican army, in the pay of the traffickers.

Mexico’s President Salinas, who knew US agents on the scene had caught the event on tape (posted on YouTube by SAC John Hensley), ordered ‘an investigation’–which led to the brief imprisonment of a Mexican General.

The US Customs Agents who witnessed the massacre turned around without landing and headed back to the US side of the border.

Violence, murder, assassinations and massacres are nothing new in Mexico, but when the violence crosses the border, people (even in Washington) begin to talk.  Unfortunately, that’s where the action ends.

Border Patrol Told to Avoid Firefights

Right now, DHS sources report the US Border Patrol has been pulling people away from hot spots along the roughly 2000 mile border the US shares with Mexico, advising agents to avoid firefights in areas where “cartels are in charge.”

The response of many US Border Patrol agents  is frustration and anger, especially along the borders of Arizona and Texas, where the overflow of cartel violence has translated into  the brazen murders of  American citizens, shootouts between gangs and landowners, high-speed chases between smugglers and local authorities, and a growing sense in US border communities that Washington has abandoned a population under siege.

Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer describes an 80 mile swath of US territory running parallel to and north of the US/Mexico border–the southernmost part of Arizona–as having been ‘ceded’ to Mexican cartels.

Indeed, before the Administration promised the deployment of 1200 National Guardsmen across the 2000 mile-long border, as well as $500 m to beef up security, the only precautions available to US citizens traveling in that part of the state were highway signs warning Americans not to approach any closer to the border, as it is a region of “active drug and human smuggling” and that those that ignore the warning may “encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”

Murders of US Citizens

The signs did little to help David Michael Huntley, 30, an American citizen shot in the head a few weeks ago by cartel thugs. Huntley and his wife Tiffany were jet skiing on Lake Falcon in Zapata County, Texas, when they spied a craft carrying armed men racing toward them. When the gang opened fire, Michael went down. His wife went into the water, but was unable to pull him onto her jet ski or hold on to her husband’s body.

One of the first reports on the murder came from ABC News–strangely enough, the headline read Mexican Pirates Kill Man on Texas Lake–hardly an urgent call for action against violent Mexican traffickers (euphemistically labeled pirates) intent on murdering Americans by either the Mexican or US governments.

Could it be that mainstream broadcast investigators have been given advice similar to the counsel offered the Border Patrol–stay away from dangerous  territory?

The word now is that officials have attributed Hartley’s murder to members of Los Zetas, the notoriously vicious breakaway hit squad previously aligned with the Gulf Cartel.

When I asked a former agent why the Zetas might have targeted a pair of American jet skiers that particular day on Lake Falcon, he said, “Who knows? Maybe they were bored with nothing to do on the Mexican side of the lake. Maybe it was robbery–a sudden impulse to own jet skis. These guys don’t need a reason–they’re killers.”

Message from Los Zetas

US investigators are searching the US side of Lake Falcon for Hartley’s body, but few seem to believe it will ever be found. The Zetas typically dispose of  a victim’s body, dumping it where it will never be found. Except, in some cases, for the head–which they use to send a message.

Consider the murder and decapitation of  Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, the lead Mexican investigator in Hartley’s murder.

The severed head of investigator Rolando Armando Flores Villegas was delivered this week to an army garrison in Ciudad Miguel Aleman in the Tamaulipas state in Mexico. The city is across the river from Zapata County, Texas, the location of Falcon Lake, where David Michael Hartley allegedly was killed . . .

The Mexican drug cartels just sent a message to the White House that the United States no longer controls the border,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.

In the days following Hartley’s killing, US Border agents said they ‘weren’t  sure’ if the Mexican government was also searching for Hartley’s body, or if Mexico had even initiated an official investigation into the death of the American.

According to ABC News, Mexico officials had also questioned whether Tiffany Hartley ‘might have imagined’ the murder of her husband on Falcon Lake:

The Mexican promise of help in the search for the body of David Hartley came after Mexican law enforcement officials cast doubt on the story by Hartley’s wife that he was killed by gunmen on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake which lies between the two countries.

It also came after Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked Mexican President Filipe Calderon to call him with assurances that Mexican authorities are searching for Hartley‘s body.

Perry said that he hopes to hear from Calderon “within the next 48 hours, that the body has been retrieved. If not, we’re not looking hard enough.

US law enforcement agents will tell you, behind closed doors, that they don’t anticipate much help or interest in this case from the Calderon administration, which understands and fully appreciates the bind imposed on the US government by the Brownsville Agreement.

While the original agreement did allow the US to conduct investigations up to 26 km south of the US-Mexico border–which would have aided in the Hartley investigation–today even that concession has disappeared.

Of course, the history and implications of the Brownsville Agreement is something Hartley’s family knows nothing about, and no one is likely to fill them in. But Dennis Hartley, the murder victim’s father, is struggling to connect the dots:

U.S. officials said they’re prohibited from entering Mexican waters to search for his body. David Hartley’s mother, Pam Hartley, has issued a public plea to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking for aid in bringing her son’s body home.

“He needs to come home and we’re begging the Mexican government, the governor of Texas, President Obama,” the man’s mother, Pam Hartley, told “Good Morning America” Tuesday.

“To Hillary — mother to mother — help me bring my son home, please,” she said, crying. “She’s a mother, she would know.”

Dennis Hartley has said Mexican police aren’t doing enough to find his son’s body. On Tuesday he told The Associated Press that he believed the Mexican authorities were being paid off by drug cartels.

What those same U.S. officials who say they’re prohibited from entering Mexican waters to search for his body won’t tell you is that the Clinton Administration bargained this option away, and that the Obama Administration has demonstrated no intention, so far, of changing course.

Neither the governor of Texas, nor the President of the United States has the  authority, under the terms of the Brownsville Agreement, to respond in any substantive way to Pam Hartley’s plea.

National Guard Deployment-Too Little Too Late?

The 2000 mile-long US-Mexico border cuts across some of the toughest, most desolate terrain on the continent. According to the Obama administration, nearly half of the 1200 troops charged with supporting US Customs and Border Patrol efforts will be sent to the volatile Arizona-Mexico border–a total of 524. Two-hundred-fifty guardsmen will be sent to Texas, 224 to California and 72 to New Mexico — 1070 national guard members (the remaining 130 will serve in support positions)  stretched across a strip of cartel-infested territory thousands of miles long.

Another little known fact: not all of these national guard members, 1070 strong will be deployed at once–sources say small contingents, 30, 50, 100 troops, will be sent incrementally as backup and support to beleaguered Customs and Border Patrol agents already working the frontlines.

Senator Lugar is right–as he said in his speech, the United States should undertake a broad review of further steps the U.S. military and the intelligence community could take to help combat the Mexican cartels in association with the Mexican government.

And one of the first steps should be to review the Brownsville Agreement, and the NAFTA-induced, “hands-off” treaty that currently prevents the US, not just from initiating investigations into the debacle inside Mexico, but from investigating the murders of our own citizens on US soil.

There are those who will tell you that while Mexico welcomes our financial support, via the Merida Initiative, the Mexican government will never allow the US investigative access or ‘boots-on-the-ground’ support from our military. If history and experience are reliable guides, they may be right.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.