US Drones in Mexico Spark Debate

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Reactions to recent reports that United States drones are now flying over Mexican territory were mixed this week, as Mexican lawmakers try to determine exactly how much U.S. presence they want inside their country.

Initial reports said that the drones began flying over Mexico in February, although a later report from the Associated Press said the practice had started in 2009.

It’s also not clear if the increased use of these unmanned aircraft — which fly at 60,000 feet, can survey 40,000 square miles in a day, and can identify items as miniscule as a milk carton from the sky — had anything to do with the recent shooting of two U.S. anti-drug agents, which left one of the agents dead.

But in Mexico, the news that drones were flying overhead sparked debate over the increasing role the United States is playing in the battle against Mexican drug cartels that has left over 35,000 people dead since December 2006.

“There’s not much more the president has to do in order to hand over his command of the country [to the U.S.],” opposition Senator Rosario Green told El Universal newspaper.

The United States has pledged to give more than $1 billion to its southern neighbor as part of the Merida Initiative, which includes money for helicopters, intelligence equipment, and judicial reform. Its agents are also increasingly working inside Mexico alongside the Mexican authorities, although they are prohibited from carrying firearms.

The drones are part of this increased cooperation. President Barack Obama and President Felipe Calderon signed an agreement this month which allows for the use of the aircraft in Mexican skies. They did not specify if this was an extension of an earlier agreement, and it remains unclear how long the drones have been used to survey Mexico.

The use of drones across Latin America has seen an increase in recent years, with Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile also using the aircrafts to monitor drug traffickers’ movements and peer into miles of unpatrolled and sparsely populated territory. Drones have played a key role in fighting leftist guerrillas in Colombia.

The Global Hawks, as the U.S. drones are known, are the same as those used by the United States in Afghanistan. They provide a source of enhanced intelligence and aerial surveillance, which is shared with Mexican authorities on the ground. They also keep tabs on drug traffickers’ communications and movements and may have helped to capture major traffickers in recent months.

In addition, the New York Times said, the drones may have assisted Mexican authorities’ apprehension of several suspects linked to last month’s shooting of two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila. Zapata died in the clash, which was blamed on the Zetas criminal organization.

“It’s what we have asked, that Americans be more involved…that we do more joint operations,” presidential supporter and Mexican Congressman Rogelio Cerda told the Associated Press.

The legal basis of the recent bilateral agreement, however, is questionable and is sure to be the subject of more debate in Mexico. Mexican law prohibits foreign military and law enforcement agents from operating within Mexican borders.

The drone agreement may also be part of a quid pro quo, a political push from the Mexicans to get the Obama administration to do more to slow the flow of assault weapons south. Mexico is pressuring the U.S. to tighten controls on sales of weapons in U.S. gun shops, which have helped the cartels arm their private fighting forces throughout the country.

The pressure follows the revelation that during a recent investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) watched as hundreds of firearms were smuggled across the border.

The Mexican Senate summoned its ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, to discuss the case, which was known by its handle “Fast and Furious.”

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