In an effort to help Mexico combat drug gangs operating near the United States border, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has been flying high-altitude, unarmed surveillance drones into Mexican air space since February 2011, according to top level government officials.
The U.S. assistance has been kept secret because of legal restrictions in Mexico and the political sensitivities tabout Mexican sovereignty, but on March 3, 2011, during a meeting at the White House, President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón formally agreed to continue the surveillance flights.
In addition to expanding the use of drones, the two leaders agreed to open a counternarcotics “fusion” center, the second such facility in Mexico, where Mexican and U.S. agencies would work together, the officials said.
In recent years, the United States has steadily stepped up its role in fighting Mexican drug trafficking, though officials offer few details of the cooperation. The greatest growth involves intelligence gathering, with Homeland Security and the U.S. military flying manned aircraft and drones along the United States’ southern border –and now over Mexican territory—that are capable of peering deep into Mexico and tracking criminals’ communications and movements, officials said.
While officials acknowledge that a Department of Homeland Security drone helped Mexican authorities find several suspects linked to the Feb. 15 killing of Jaime Zapata, an agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, officials will not say if that was the beginning of surveillance flights into Mexico.
Both Mexican and U.S. officials say Mexico asked the United States to use its drones to help track the movements of suspects. The officials said that while Mexico had its own unmanned aerial vehicles, they did not have the range or high-resolution capabilities necessary for certain surveillance activities.
The DoD has flown a number of flights over the past month using the Global Hawk drones, a spy plane that can surpass an altitude of 60,000 feet, and survey 40,000 square miles, of territory in a day, and which cannot be easily seen from the ground.
However, no officials would say how many drone flights have been conducted, or how many were anticipated under the agreement. The officials cited the secrecy of drug investigations and concerns that airing such details might endanger U.S. and Mexican officials on the ground.