NOGALES, Ariz. —In a politically sensitive operation at the Arizona-Mexico border, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican federal police officers are training together, sharing intelligence and coordinating patrols for the first time.
The goal of the historic partnership: a systematic joint attack on northbound flows of drugs and migrants, and southbound shipments of guns and cash. It is part of a major, unannounced crackdown started in recent months, involving hundreds of U.S. and Mexican officers in the border's busiest smuggling corridor.
The initiative appears likely to expand. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna will sign a declaration today in Mexico City agreeing to replicate the experiment. Eventually, officials say, joint operations borderwide could lead to the creation of a Mexican force serving as a counterpart to the Border Patrol — an agency once regarded with nationalistic aversion in Mexico.
"We are planting a seed of binational cooperation that interests all of us," Mexican federal police Cmdr. Armando Trevino said Tuesday in Nogales. "We are fighting a common enemy. We are going to work together like friends, like comrades, like brothers."
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The Obama administration needs results on border security in its uphill campaign for immigration reform. Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government wants progress in its war on drug mafias.
But the unprecedented effort faces imposing obstacles: violent drug cartels, longstanding Mexican reluctance to interfere with illegal immigration into the United States and a legacy of corruption that has scuttled past enforcement efforts.
"There's so much potential for corruption," said Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, a migrant advocate group in Arizona. "It could be destined for failure.... Right now law enforcement in Mexico cannot compete with the trafficking networks. It can't compete with the money, the power."
In the 1990s, the Border Patrol worked closely with Grupo Beta, an elite Mexican police unit. After a promising start, the unit faltered under allegations of wrongdoing, and it functions today as an unarmed humanitarian agency.
Nonetheless, Tuesday's visit by Trevino was full of signs that times are changing. The 69-year-old white-haired, retired army general leads the Sonora, Mexico, contingent of the federal preventive police, which conducts street-level enforcement involving major crimes and patrols highways and airports.
Trevino watched a training session in which green-uniformed U.S. instructors shouted directions as nine Mexican officers in blue uniforms, goggles and helmets roared through mud and water on all-terrain vehicles that the Border Patrol uses to chase border-crossers.
The Border Patrol plans to vet and train several hundred Mexican federal officers.