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US drones, torture used in hunt for Mexican druglord

Mexican marines wait to board a US Navy ship for training exercises.

The US government’s involvement in the Mexican drug war is no secret. Jeremy Scahill and others have reported that the US military’s powerful Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has for years worked alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Mexico and Colombia. The DHS sub-agencies Border Patrol and Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE), too, have long invested substantial resources in cross-border drug war related operations. It therefore doesn’t come as a huge shock to find that the US has enlisted covert drones in the war against narco-lords.

In a long article for the New Yorker about the hunt for Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera (known as El Chapo), investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe writes:

"In the sky, a covert U.S. drone looked down on the city, poised to track the fugitive if he emerged from a manhole and fled through the streets."

El Chapo, whose deputy reportedly worked with the US DEA and Department of Justice for over a decade, informing on rival cartels, was arrested by Mexican forces days later. According to Keefe, the drone didn’t have anything to do with his capture. It was human intelligence, not fancy surveillance technology, that ultimately did El Chapo in.

But the human intelligence may have been produced through torture. Keefe:

One curious feature of Guzmán’s capture was the fact that he was betrayed, in rapid succession, by at least two of his closest aides: Nariz and Picudo. Had either one refused to coöperate, Guzmán would likely remain free today. I was impressed, initially, by the speed with which the marines had elicited leads from these subordinates, both of them ex-members of Mexico’s special forces who had been hardened by years in the cartel. One U.S. law-enforcement official told me that it is not unusual for cartel members to start coöperating as soon as they are captured. “There’s very little allegiance once they’re taken into custody,” he said.

But when I raised the subject with a former D.E.A. agent who has spoken to Mexican counterparts involved in the operation, he had a different explanation. “The marines tortured these guys,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “They would never have given it up, if not for that.” The D.E.A. refused to comment on the torture allegation. However, two senior U.S. law-enforcement officials told me that, though they had no specific knowledge of the Mexican authorities using torture in the operation, they “wouldn’t be surprised.” Eduardo Sánchez, the spokesman for the Mexican government, denied the allegation, and maintained that, in this and other operations, “federal officials, agents, and officers perform their duties strictly within the applicable legal framework and with utmost respect for human rights.” But the Mexican armed forces have been implicated before in the use of torture as an interrogation technique in the pursuit of drug traffickers. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report found that members of Mexico’s security services “systematically use torture to obtain forced confessions and information about criminal groups,” and documented the use of such techniques as “beatings, asphyxiation with plastic bags, waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual torture, and death threats.” The broad employment of brutal techniques, coupled with the high profile and the urgency of the hunt for Guzmán, makes it seem all the more plausible that Mexican authorities used unsavory, and illegal, means to pursue him.

Drones, torture, special forces, and "unsavory…illegal means" sound awfully familiar. That's no accident.

Since 2004, the US Department of Defense has run a task force that "provides support to law enforcement agencies conducting counter-drug activities." This task force "may also provide, subject to all applicable laws and regulations, support to law enforcement agencies conducting counter-terrorism activities." The Department of Justice took over the National Drug Intelligence Center’s operations from the DoD in 2011. The joint focus on counterterrorism and counterdrug operations remains intact. In states nationwide, National Guard offices assist state and local law enforcement in counterdrug/counterterror operations—including surveillance—and intelligence collection and analysis.

The wars on drugs and terror don’t just look alike. From budgets to tactics, worldwide and domestically, they are increasingly the same war.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.