Plan To Offer Drug War Training To Mexican Commandos Raises Red Flags

Mexican soldierS stand guard in front of Piedras Negras federal prison where a group of prisoners escaped on the eve, in Pied
Mexican soldierS stand guard in front of Piedras Negras federal prison where a group of prisoners escaped on the eve, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, on September 18, 2012. Some 5,000 Mexican troops and police officers hunted for 132 inmates near the US border Tuesday after the group escaped in broad daylight through a tunnel dug under their prison. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

As the U.S. military seeks to embark on a project to train Mexican commandos to fight the drug war there, security and Latin America experts are pointing to a tortured history of special-operations training gone wrong, as well as widespread abuses by the Mexican military, as reasons to eye the plan with caution.

The plan, revealed this week by the Associated Press, would involve creating a new, specially designated command post in Colorado for the training and advising of Mexican elite military units, using techniques learned during the United States' counterterrorism wars in the Middle East. It is not yet clear if Mexican authorities would approve the plan.

The project is a sign of the desperation brought by the drug war in Mexico, which continues to rage unremittingly, taking some 65,000 lives since 2006, orone every half-hour. But to some regional experts, the proposal also inspires ugly flashbacks to the kinds of unforeseen consequences that can follow when American commandos get involved in training elite forces -- around the world and in Mexico.

"There's a real potential for blowback when you're training elite units because you're giving them specialized skills and giving them a lot tools to use on their own citizens," said Adam Isacson, who runs the regional security program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group in D.C. "There's not a lot of sense of history in the Defense Department on this sort of stuff."

In Mexico, that bad history is neither so long ago nor easily forgotten. In the 1990s, specially trained members of the Mexican military's elite forces defected and formed Los Zetas, now widely considered the most violent and powerful drug cartel in the country.

Nik Steinberg, the Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that even barring such a catastrophe, the potential for things to go awry remains high given that the Mexican military has operated with near impunity over the past several years.

"You don't have to go as far as the Zetas to be really worried," Steinberg said. "The line between security forces and organized crime is nonexistent sometimes. And the U.S. government knows -- the Wikileaks memos tell us that the U.S. government knows -- that there are elements in the security forces that not only commit serious abuses but are directly tied to organized crime. So they have to treat this very carefully."

Pentagon officials downplayed the operational changes outlined in the AP report, describing them as merely restructuring to better fit the sort of training and advising that already takes place. And it is not yet a given that the Mexican government, which has grown increasingly sensitive to the appearance of outside interference, will accept the plan for even closer cooperation with the United States.

Some security experts concede it's possible training from American forces could help ameliorate the situation, by bringing greater professionalism to the elite units of the Mexican military. "Sometimes contact with U.S. troops improves the situation, sometimes it makes it worse; it's a mixed record," said Isacson. "We never know what's going to happen."

In Afghanistan, a decade of American training of specialized units has so far largely been considered one of the few true achievements of the war.

But in other places, the scorecard is more mixed, as the recent spike in violence in Mali has brought into relief.

For much of the past decade, as the New York Times recently recounted, American special operations forces trained Malian army units to defend the government -- until several of those units defected to join Islamist rebels.

In the end, it was an American-trained Malian officer who led the military coup that brought down Mali's government last year, opening the door for Islamic extremist groups to take over much of the country.