WASHINGTON, Mar 16 – The United States has begun sending unarmed drones deep into Mexico to gather intelligence about powerful drug cartels in order to assist local authorities, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The newspaper said US President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon formally agreed to the high-altitude missions in a meeting on March 3 but have kept it secret because of possible political and legal constraints.
It cited unnamed US officials as saying that the drones gathered vital information leading to Mexico\’s arrest of several suspects in last month\’s killing of US immigration and customs agent Jaime Zapata, 32.
Such a program would suggest rising concerns about the Mexican government\’s ability to bring the cartels to heel through a massive military crackdown launched by Calderon in 2006.
Since then more than 34,600 people have been killed in drug-related violence that has engulfed the country, especially areas along the US border where rival gangs battle over lucrative trade routes to the north.
"It wasn’t that long ago when there was no way the DEA could conduct the kinds of activities they are doing now," Mike Vigil, a retired chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Times.
"And the only way they’re going to be able to keep doing them is by allowing Mexico to have plausible deniability."
The Times quoted a senior US official as saying that all "counternarcotics activities were conducted at the request and direction of the Mexican government."
It quoted both Mexican and US officials as saying that Mexico has been turning a blind eye to US wiretapping of the telephones of drug suspects and to US agents carrying weapons in violation of longstanding Mexican restrictions.
Mexican and US officials said that their joint efforts had led to the capture or killing of at least 20 high-level drug traffickers, including 12 in the last year alone, the Times reported.
However, past high-profile arrests have had little impact on the ground.
On Tuesday a six-truck convoy of gunmen pursuing a marked man shot dead six people, including two children aged two and six, during a rampage through the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco, state officials said.
And in northeastern Mexico a car bomb exploded outside a police station and a children\’s playground, wounding a woman and a police officer.