US-Based Security Contractors Expand Operations in Mexico

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With Mexico’s drug violence breaking records, a number of United States-based security companies are expanding operations in the country. Although many of these firms are highly involved in counter-narcotics efforts there, some in the U.S. are concerned about their effect on law enforcement efforts and their relatively low level of oversight.

In 2008, an anonymous United States embassy official in Mexico told Reuters that the majority of the $1.8 billion Merida Initiative would go to American security contractors like DynCorps and Northrop Grumman, who have been hired to spray illicit drugs, work in government ministries and help train army and police forces. However, an exact breakdown of the funding provided by the Merida Initiative is unavailable, as the Defense and State Departments have refused to release this information to the general public.

This lack of transparency has some concerned that defense contractors – a controversial industry – may be expanding their role in Washington’s anti-drug policy in Latin America.  At a Senate hearing last May, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill admonished the U.S. Defense and State Departments for not accounting for the billions of dollars spent on private contractors in the region, and threatened to issue subpoenas against them.

“We asked for this information from the State Department and the Defense Department more than three months ago,” said McCaskill. “Despite our repeated requests, neither department has been able to answer our questions yet.”

In addition to the American security contractors working in Mexico, U.S.-based kidnapping negotiating businesses are also increasing their operations in the country. Kidnappings in Mexico are at an all-time high, and just last year there were documented 1,847 cases in the country. This spike in kidnapping has prompted a “boom” in business for companies offering ransom negotiating services to wealthy families and firms, as a recent Washington Post article notes.

However, this trend may be causing kidnapping cases to go unreported, as these firms represent (for those who can afford it) a safer alternative to Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police. In fact, many American citizens living in the border area and who have relatives that have been kidnapped are also turning to private companies instead of the police.

According to former Chula Vista, California police commander Capt. Leonard Miranda, these private companies have the potential to disrupt U.S. and Mexican investigations into drug trafficking.  “I think we should be very concerned that families in our communities are being victimized and that U.S. law enforcement has a limited capacity to track how often it’s happening,” he told the Post.

Still, although many of these firms employ former FBI and CIA agents as consultants and have reputations for being more effective than law enforcement, they themselves are not immune from the dangers of crime in Mexico. Felix Batista, an anti-kidnapping advisor for ASI Global LLC was himself kidnapped in Coahuila in December 2008. Batista’s family has not heard from his abductors since.

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