Mexico: U.S. Drones Gather Intelligence on Drug Cartels

This post is part of our special coverage Mexico's Drug War.

A story first reported on March 15 by Ginger Thompson and Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times has garnered strong responses from Mexican netizens based at home and abroad. Citing American and Mexican officials, “U.S. Drones Fight Mexican Drug Trade” relayed news that “the Obama administration has begun sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence that helps locate major traffickers and follow their networks.”

The Pentagon first dispatched the high-altitude, unmanned drones in February, according to the Times report. The Associated Press later reported that US drones have been flying over Mexico since 2009.

Image of "Predator drone" by Flickr user Doctress Neutopia (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Presidents Obama and Calderon formalized an agreement to continue the reconnaissance flights during the latter's visit to Washington on March 3. During the same meeting, the leaders also agreed to institute a second counter-narcotics “fusion center,” where American authorities would collaborate with counterparts on the ground in Mexico.

Bloggers were prompt to respond to this and subsequent accounts in the mainstream media of what were bound to be contentious developments. Early off the mark was blogger Pepe Flores, who weighed in on Vivir México [es].

…dicho pacto se habia mantenido en secreto por las restricciones legales en Mexico y la sensibilidad en torno a la soberania national.

El NYT destaca algo que es bien sabido en Mexico:  el rol de Estados Unidos en la guerra contra el narcotrafico es cada vez mas grande.

The pact was kept secret due to legal restrictions in Mexico and to sensitivity surrounding national sovereignty.

The NYT underscored something that is well known in Mexico: the role of the United States in the war against narco-trafficking is becoming ever greater.

Having glossed what amount to the bullet points in the NYT‘s report, Flores went on to provide relevant context as well as analysis.

Sin embargo, el clima de cooperacion entre Mexico y Estados Unidos no es le mejor. Si bien la relacion no es fria, si se habla de mucho resentimiento entre ambas partes. Por un lado, Calderon se encuentra muy preoccupado por la percepcion publica, pues esta intervencion podria considerarse hasta anticonstitucional. Sin embargo, si se hace como con la Iniciative Merida, podria tratarse de un acuerdo ejecutivo (executive agreement) – una especia de acuerdo de palabra entre los presidentes, sin necessidad de ratificacion de los Congresos.

Still, the climate of cooperation between Mexico and the United States is not the best. If the relationship isn't quite cold, there is still talk of much resentment between both parties. On the one hand, Calderon finds himself very preoccupied with public perception, since this intervention could be considered unconstitutional.  Still, if it is done like the Merida Initiative, it could be treated as an executive agreement – a type of oral accord between two presidents that doesn't require ratification by the two Congresses.

On the same day, Erwin in The Latin Americanist published a post entitled “Mr. Calderon goes to Washington – I spy with my little eye…” that took up the matter of the constitutionality of the accords, and issued a cautionary reminder.

Mexico's constitution strictly limits the operation of foreign military and law-enforcement authorities.  Nonetheless, CNN cited a statement from the Mexican National Security Council affirming that the drone activities are “undertaken with full respect to the law.”

It used to be that the Department of Homeland Security flew drones over the U.S.-Mexican border to watch for illegal immigrants.  That proliferation of military technology to a civilian mission isn't without its share of malfunctions:  Not only did the communications systems occasionally fritz out, but on at least one occasion, a small drone – the property of the Mexican government – crashed into an El Paso backyard.

Blogger “boz” was likewise cautionary in his response.

The US insists that everything done with the drones is under the request and direction of the Mexican government.  That might (maybe) make it constitutional.  However, that's not going to stop certain sectors within Mexican politics from being very angry about this issue.

Though it appears easier at first, keeping operations like this quiet due to political sensitivities is the wrong attitude to have.  If we regard Mexico as an equal partner and a democracy, then they should be having this debate about US military assistance openly and transparently.  I realize it's not going to be a fun debate to have in the Mexican Congress and media and that it could lead to the end of these sorts of operations, but Calderon's political comfort is not an operational security requirement.

Besides, these types of operations only stay secret for so long.  Then they're reported in major media outlets like the NYT.  Reading about the US military operations in the newspaper rather than being briefed by the executive branch is just going to make those Mexican politicians and political sectors who will be angry about the issue even angrier.

Blogger “Gancho” put himself in the place of Mexican authorities trying to persuade a reluctant public of the wisdom of inviting the U.S. drones to Mexico.

I think the best argument would be to point to results, assuming there are some and you don't compromise future operations by doing so. Something along the lines of, “Yeah, pinches gringos are nosy as can be, but we caught Beltran Leyva and Tony Tormenta and Nacho Coronel thanks to this program,” would make for a powerful argument.

Meanwhile, links to the New York Times report and subsequent media accounts made their way around Twitter; while most were unaccompanied by editorial remarks, there were exceptions. Diego (@the_eggo) tweeted:

Whoa! Drones, plausible deniability…Sovereignty Schmovereignty. #narco #mexico #drones.

José Arrache Murguía (@pepe_arrache) wrote:

La intrusión de Drones a #Mexico, muestra ineptitud en guerra absurda sin resultados visibles . Espionaje: el otro enemigo! Tibia respuesta

The intrusion of Drones in #Mexico, shows ineptitude in an absurd war without visible results. Espionage: the other enemy! A tepid response

After recent reports that US drones killed 40 civilians in Pakistan, Julio Izquierdo (@mustanghead) expressed a common concern:

Ojala los drones (aviones roboticos) gringos no comiencen a ocasionar victimas inocentes como en Pakistan

Hopefully the gringo drones (robot planes) won't start causing innocent victims like in Pakistan

This post is part of our special coverage Mexico's Drug War.


  • […] Mak’s latest report for GV addresses netizen response to the recent deployment of American drones over Mexico in support of Calderon’s war on the drug cartels.  You can read it here:  ttp://  […]

  • Dr. DIAS

    No big surprise!

    This is the new Latina Curtain the USA is using to trap it drug enemies!

    Panama is now flying two or more Drones daily!

    Now they can track all the demonstrations and anti Government movements from the USA in their Air Conditioned living rooms 24/7 while lazing in their Lazy boys!

    Panama can ill afford these expenditures and while over half of the Panamanians do not have clean safe water to drink and over half are malnutrition and near starvation this Martinelli government spends $millions and $millions for defense!

    Defense for an enemy which does not exist!

    This war on drugs is really a war against the poor and underprivileged of the world!

    “Panama where the numbers never add up”

  • stephen

    This is good, the cartels need to be stopped, because
    “And the border meant freedom, a new life, romance,
    And that’s why I thought I should go,
    And start my life over on the seashores of old Mexico.” George Strait song.
    We need Mexico just with out the drugs.

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