Amid criticism of surveillance flights by U.S. drones over Mexico, a high-ranking U.S. military commander said Friday the United States is careful not to violate Mexican sovereignty as the two countries fight drug trafficking.
Adm. James Winnefeld, head of U.S. Northern Command, didn't specifically mention the drones, but he did refer to recent reports about "elements of U.S. support" for Mexico in the drug war.
Winnefeld wrote that the U.S. is eager to work with Mexico, but "the very first question we ask is whether or not it would infringe in any way on Mexico's sovereignty or rule of law. The answer, quite simply, must be `no, it does not.'"
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been surreptitiously flying Predator drones into Mexico since 2009, but the practice didn't come to light until Wednesday. The border security agency's surveillance flights started before the occasional flights into Mexico by the U.S. Air Force's $38 million Global Hawk drone that began last month.
Some Mexican lawmakers were critical of the border agency flights, but Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa said the drone flights do not violate Mexico's sovereignty because they are "controlled" by Mexico and are unarmed.
Mexico's National Security Council said U.S. unmanned aircraft have been sent over Mexico on surveillance missions when requested by the Mexican government. A U.S. official told The Associated Press in Mexico City that during each mission, a Mexican official is present at the U.S. command center where a drone is remotely piloted.
In a written statement to The Associated Press on Friday, Northern Command said the U.S. military works closely with the Mexican military to counter what it called "transnational criminal organizations" but declined to offer specifics, including whether Northern Command had a role in the drone flights.
The statement said cooperation and communication between the U.S. and Mexican militaries is at a "historic high" and includes exchanges of experts on a variety of topics such as the U.S. military court system, operational planning and intelligence and human rights conventions.
Northern Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., is responsible for the military defense of U.S. soil and supporting civilian agencies in natural or human-caused disasters.