U.S. law enforcement will train local and state police officers from Mexico as part of the next phase of the two countries' joint fight against transnational drug cartels, a U.S. State Department official said Wednesday.
U.S. agencies have been training Mexican federal police on both sides of the border for several years. However, William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said it is clear that local forces face the most concentrated violence, especially in northern Mexico, and are in the most need of training.
"If we do not address these problems cooperatively today, we will be addressing them on our own front doorsteps in five years," Brownfield said.
Brownfield was in the Texas border town of Laredo on Wednesday, signing an agreement outlining how deputies from the Webb County Sheriff's Office could spend periods of three months, six months or more training their counterparts in Mexico.
It was the first such agreement the State Department has signed with a local law enforcement agency anywhere on the U.S.-Mexico border. Brownfield said more trainers are needed and the high rate of bilingual deputies with border experience made Webb County an attractive place to start such a program.
Police training has been a significant part of the Merida Initiative, which outlined the U.S. partnership with Mexico and Central America in the drug war and has committed $1.4 billion since 2008. However, the focus now shifts to historically out-gunned and ill-prepared local forces ducking bullets and facing ominous threats on a daily basis.
Mexico received $327 million for police training in fiscal 2009 from the U.S. State Department through Merida, placing it behind only Afghanistan and Iraq in total funds received for police training from the departments of State or Defense, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office in April.
Details of the proposed training programs have not been worked out, but Brownfield envisions three or four training centers in Mexico. He is holding complementary meetings with Mexican officials on this trip to begin working out the program's shape. He said he spoke with officials in Juarez on Monday and will hold similar meetings in Monterrey Thursday.
Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon states, respectively, have been two of Mexico's hardest hit by drug gang violence.
According to official figures, at least 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime. Other sources, including local media, say the number is closer to 40,000. The federal government has not released an update of its numbers since December.
U.S. involvement in Mexico has drawn attention there recently after Mexico's government confirmed that U.S. intelligence agents operate there, analyzing and exchanging information. The New York Times had reported that CIA agents and former U.S. military personnel are working at a Mexican military base in the fight against drug gangs.
Brownfield stressed that involvement of U.S. trainers will come only with Mexican approval and that the training centers would be under Mexican authority. He also said a longer-term vision could include pairing trainers from an agency such as the Webb County Sheriff's Office with a National Guard deployment from Texas. The National Guard has been active in the drug war on the U.S. side of the border in intelligence analysis.
The agreement signed Wednesday "sets guidelines for the Webb County Sherriff's Office to train, advise and mentor international law enforcement agencies and officers." The sheriff's office will pay the upfront costs and receive reimbursement from the State Department. Its trainers, which it will release on a voluntary basis, will not carry weapons in other countries and will have to be approved in advance by the State Department. The State Department will be responsible for screening any trainees and will give pre-deployment training to trainers.
The agreement leaves open the possibility of training on U.S. soil, but Brownfield said from a cost standpoint it made more sense to send a few trainers to Mexico than bring hundreds of trainees to the U.S.
Brownfield said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo was very active in pushing the venture. Cuellar's brother, Martin Cuellar, is Webb County sheriff.
The congressman said the benefits worked both ways. "When the teacher goes down there, the teacher will learn from the students."