comments_image Comments

Border Patrol & Mexican Police Unleash First-Ever Joint Attack on Border Violence, Crime

The Border Patrol and Mexican police are training together and sharing intelligence for the first time. The goal: a joint attack on cross-border flows of drugs, guns, and migrants.

NOGALES, ARIZ. -- In a politically sensitive operation at the Arizona-Mexico border, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican federal police officers are training together, sharing intelligence and coordinating patrols for the first time.

The goal of the historic partnership: a systematic joint attack on northbound flows of drugs and migrants, and southbound shipments of guns and cash. It is part of a major, unannounced crackdown started in recent months that involves hundreds of U.S. and Mexican officers in the border’s busiest smuggling corridor.

The initiative appears likely to expand. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro García Luna will sign a declaration Thursday in Mexico City agreeing to replicate the experiment elsewhere. Eventually, officials say, joint operations border-wide could lead to the creation of a Mexican force serving as a counterpart to the Border Patrol — an agency once regarded with nationalistic aversion in Mexico.

“We are planting a seed of bi-national cooperation that interests all of us,” Cmdr. Armando Treviño, who leads the Mexican federal police contingent in the state of Sonora, said Tuesday here in Nogales. “We are fighting a common enemy. We are going to work together like friends, like comrades, like brothers.”

Political urgency drives both sides. The Obama administration needs results on border security in its uphill campaign for immigration reform. Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s government wants progress in its high-stakes war on drug mafias.

But the unprecedented effort faces imposing obstacles: violent drug cartels, long-standing Mexican reluctance to interfere with illegal immigration into the United States and a legacy of corruption that has scuttled past enforcement efforts.

“There’s so much potential for corruption,” said Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, a migrant advocate group in Arizona. “It could be destined for failure. ... Right now law enforcement in Mexico cannot compete with the trafficking networks. It can’t compete with the money, the power.”

In the 1990s, the Border Patrol worked closely with Grupo Beta, an elite Mexican police unit. After a promising start, the unit faltered under allegations of wrongdoing and functions today as an unarmed humanitarian agency.

Nonetheless, Tuesday’s visit by Treviño, 69, was full of signs that times are changing. The lean, white-haired, retired army general has served for a year in the federal preventive police, which conducts street-level enforcement involving major crimes and patrols highways and airports.

Treviño watched a training session in which green-uniformed U.S. instructors shouted directions as nine Mexican officers in blue uniforms, goggles and helmets roared through mud and water on all-terrain vehicles that the Border Patrol uses to chase border-crossers.

Mexican officers, who undergo U.S. background checks, also train in close-quarters firearms techniques and medical rescue skills. The Border Patrol plans to vet and train several hundred Mexican federal officers who also will learn behavioral analysis and ways to detect contraband concealed in vehicles.

Map: U.S. and Mexico Patrol the Border. Click to see how the two countries take on drug and immigrant smuggling.

The American town has a population of 30,000 and a downtown dotted with shuttered shops. The federal government is the main employer. Economic woes have forced the city to close three parks.

The Mexican Nogales has 10 times the population and sprawls across a congested valley. It has historically been one of the main routes for shipments of fruits and vegetables going north, a route that is now shared with the illicit flow of immigrants and drugs. Although violence has not reached the crisis levels of Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, upscale restaurants are often empty because of fear of violence.

After lunch in the U.S. Nogales, Treviño and his aide, Inspector Carlos García, accompanied Border Patrol supervisors on a rattling hour’s drive on a dirt mountain road to inspect a base housing a dozen live-in Border Patrol agents. Treviño plans to set up two “mirror” bases for his officers south of the U.S. outposts to pursue smugglers, who use horses and ultra-light aircraft in the rugged terrain.