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Is the U.S. Military Deepening its Operations in Mexico?

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News Wednesday evening that U.S. military officials had arrived in Matamoros went viral over Twitter and other social media sites along the Mexican border and by Thursday morning Mexicans were talking of an U.S. invasion.

Video footage filmed by Univision’s Brownsville affiliate, KNVO-TV 48, showed a convoy of Mexican military trucks escorting armored SUVs through the streets of Matamoros in the early morning hours. An U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter hovered overhead as the convoy sped through downtown Matamoros.

The city of Matamoros has been under siege since 2010 when the Zeta Cartel officially declared war with its former ally the Gulf Cartel, which has long controlled the smuggling territory from Matamoros to Reynosa.

Was this meeting of U.S. and Mexican military officials a new twist in the increasingly disastrous and bloody drug war, which has already killed upwards of 50,000 people?

With the 2012 elections nearing and Mexico’s drug war worsening, U.S. politicians have been advocating for a deeper involvement in Mexico’s military campaign. Republican candidates like Rick Perry have advocated for a military intervention in Mexico. Congressional Republicans such as Texas’ Mike McCaul and Florida’s Connie Mack have been lobbying heavily to label narcotraffickers as “narco-terrorists.” Congressman Mack filed a bill in November, HR 3401 called the Enhanced Border Security Act that would replace Plan Merida with, according to the bill’s summary, “counterinsurgency tactics under a coordinated and targeted strategy to combat the terrorist insurgency in Mexico waged by transnational criminal organizations…”

In September, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples released a report written by retired U.S. generals Barry McCaffery and Robert Scales that called for a military intervention on the border.  The “military assessment” refers to drug cartel operatives as “narco-terrorists” and U.S. border counties are referred to as the “sanitary tactical zone” where military operations can push back the “narco-terrorists.”

Local law enforcement agencies along the U.S. border are bulking up with military grade weaponry. DPS recently purchased six armored gun boats. The boats cost $580,000 a pop. Each boat has six mounted machine guns. They look like they should be hunting Somali pirates in the Suez Canal. And don’t forget the drones that the U.S. military is flying over Mexico.

Thursday morning I called Col. Wayne Shanks, Chief of Public Affairs with U.S. Army Northern Command in San Antonio. Shanks said three U.S. military officers and approximately nine U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officials attended the meeting Wednesday at the Mexican Army base in Matamoros.

Shanks said meetings like the one in Matamoros are not new but an ongoing effort to coordinate with Mexico.

“It’s a fairly regular occurrence on both sides of the border,” Shanks said. “What was new was that CBP (Customs and Border Protection) came along.”

Shanks said it was a “coordination meeting to discuss topics of interest between the two parties.” He said he had no further details of the subject matter of the meeting. But he did say that Army North has had 60 meetings in the last year with Mexican military officials. Shanks said even more meetings are scheduled for 2012.

He added that the U.S. military and law enforcement officials were unarmed. “It is up to the host country to provide the security,” he said.

By the looks of the heavily armed convoy of Mexican Army humvees and armored SUVs, Mexico wasn’t taking any chances with its invited guests. Neither was the United States, with a Dept. of Homeland Security helicopter flying overhead in Mexican airspace.

With the security situation worsening in Mexico, Army North seems to be taking a stronger interest in our neighbor to the south. In 2012, U.S. Gen. William Caldwell will take over command of Army North in San Antonio. He’s spent the last two years training Afghan security forces. Caldwell is relatively young and very well respected inside and outside the Beltway.

It doesn’t seem logical that the U.S. Army would send Caldwell to San Antonio unless they had an important operation for him to command. Northern Command has already been tasked with training Mexican security forces for the past three years. With Caldwell in charge the question is will U.S. Northcom ramp up its efforts in Mexico? Anybody vaguely familiar with U.S.-Mexico relations knows that no Mexican politician who wants to win an election would ever allow armed and uniformed U.S. soldiers onto Mexican territory. But how far will they allow U.S. officials to operate covertly?

Mexico’s security crisis is serious. Local police have long colluded with drug cartels, as have some members of the federal police and the Mexican Army. In many border cities like Matamoros, local police have long worked as enforcers for the cartel.

But what’s ailing Mexico is institutionalized corruption wrought from 71 years of rule under the PRI party – the so-called ‘perfect dictatorship.’ Calderon’s militarization of Mexico has been a disaster. Reports show that soldiers unleashed in Mexican cities have tortured and murdered civilians. Mexico doesn’t need more soldiers; it needs an army of honest judges who will try cases and honest police who will conduct investigations that lead to arrests. And it needs political leaders who don’t collude with drug dealers.

With U.S. Predator drones flying overhead, the recent assignment of the U.S.’ former Deputy Ambassador of Afghanistan to Mexico City and General Caldwell to San Antonio, Mexicans have a right to wonder: what’s the next chapter in Mexico’s drug war? Does the War on Drugs become a counterinsurgency? Does it become Mexistan?

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.