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The Internationalization of Police: 
The DEA in Mexico


Maps and Timeline

Photo Galleries:

Communities Abroad


Major Events

María Celia Toro

Little has been published on how countries react to the presence of foreign police within their borders. Ethan A. Nadelmann has written a major work on the internationalization of United States criminal law enforcement agencies; its focus, however, is on the "behavior and perspectives of U.S. officials" engaged in international law enforcement activities. Still, his work has provided interesting clues for my own research on Mexican policy toward drugs in the context of United States – Mexican relations.1

     This article will focus on Mexico’s experience with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and in particular, on how and why that United States police agency has become a powerful presence in Mexico and the source of bitter fights between Mexico and the United States over the last fifteen years. The DEA’s influence, I argue, has been consequential on two fronts: on the Mexican government and its antidrug policies and on the organization and practice of drug trafficking in Mexico. Leaving aside the critical issue of how, over the last fifteen years, the DEA has modified the relationship between the Mexican government and drug traffickers, in this article I will concentrate on the influence of the agency on Mexican drug policy and on the challenge that DEA agents have come to represent for the Mexican state.

     That challenge is to the most exclusive, that is, sovereign, of a state’s powers, namely, law enforcement. The police is not only in charge of legally enforcing a country’s laws; it is also the instrument of a central authority. The badge and gun of DEA agents represent United States sovereign police power, which does not extend beyond American borders. Many governments have come to accept the occasional practice of hot pursuit across frontiers to arrest fleeing criminals, but very few will tolerate the exercise of police power by a foreign agency. According to Nadelmann, "The presence of foreign police may be accepted, but virtually never the legal authority that underpins them in their own country." The impossibility of enforcing one country’s laws in another polity leads to extremely awkward situations for the DEA in Mexico, which will be described in this article.2

The DEA in Other Countries

American antidrug agents have reached outside United States borders with the prime objectives of enforcing their laws more effectively and of reducing the amount of drugs smuggled into the United States. They began traveling abroad and stationed themselves in other countries for the first time early in the twentieth century, when — practically overnight — the international drug trade became illegal under United States law. The first United States laws penalizing the import of opium and cocaine were enforced by narcotics agents in the Treasury Department, concerned, as a revenue and customs agency, with illegal imports. The United States Customs and Border Patrol were the most important agencies enforcing antidrug laws in the 1910s and 1920s. The international presence of United States antidrug enforcement agents in those days was mostly "local," covering Canada and Mexico. Reaching outside usually meant crossing the border in hot pursuit of fleeing drug dealers, asking the counterpart agency in another nation to locate the criminal — frequently an American citizen — and send him back to the United States, or entering neighboring countries on intelligence-gathering missions. At the beginning of this century, few countries experienced drug-related transgressions of their territorial sovereignty as a result of attempts to enforce United States drug laws.

     In the 1920s, the Prohibition Unit, in charge of supervising narcotics enforcement at the Department of the Treasury, had agents stationed in about ten countries. The internationalization effort, still modest, was then largely the work of one individual, the legendary Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who "reached personal agreements with the heads of twenty counterpart agencies in foreign countries to exchange intelligence" and "had few inhibitions about sending his agents abroad on investigations." In 1930 enforcement of alcohol and narcotics laws was separated and assigned to the Bureau of Prohibition (in the Justice Department) and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN, in the Treasury Department).3

     For thirty-two years the FBN was headed by Anslinger, famous within and outside the United States for his toughness and a principal figure in the internationalization of the bureau and the creation of antidrug programs that concentrated police efforts "on the sources of supply." Largely on a personal basis, he developed a secret international network of narcotics-law enforcement officers from various, mostly European, countries to exchange information "on the movements of alleged international dope dealers." The FBN committed numerous excesses and finally fell victim of police corruption, which led to the creation of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1968 and to the consolidation of drug-law enforcement in the Justice Department.4

     A relatively weak police office in the late 1960s, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was reorganized in 1973 under a new name: the Drug Enforcement Administration. The United States policy of building an informal international network of police agents, not very different perhaps from today’s Interpol in its purpose of linking national police agencies for the exchange of information and experiences, was replaced during the Nixon administration by a more forceful policy of "Americanization" of antidrug programs in various countries.

     The true internationalization of United States police, antidrug agents in particular, began in the 1970s. Since the DEA’s creation, the number and influence of its agents in other countries has grown dramatically, and, in many countries of Latin America, their power is today overwhelming. This agency’s growth and worldwide reach is closely related to the increase in international drug trafficking. The "wars on drugs" of the Reagan and Bush administrations in the 1980s were basically, though not exclusively, fought by the DEA.5

     With the drug boom of the 1980s, DEA efforts inside and outside the United States became more ambitious and daring. Between 1981 and 1990, the agency’s budget tripled within a heavily expanding United States federal budget for drug abuse control, which reached more than $10 billion by the beginning of the 1990s. Congress and United States courts provided the legal basis to extend United States jurisdiction to drug offenses committed abroad. Consequently, in the 1980s the DEA became a well-equipped police, amassing investigative resources and developing powerful tactics to obtain drug-related information in other countries. With proper funding, a unique capacity to store and transmit information, suitable laws, and a warlike rhetoric, the DEA grew into the most powerful organization combatting contraband drugs in the United States. In 1987 it had close to 2,200 special agents and intelligence analysts throughout the United States, and over 240 agents in 42 countries; by the beginning of the 1990s, its agents stationed abroad covered more than 60 cities.6

     The most striking and consequential development from the perspective of international relations has been the extraterritorial extension of United States criminal jurisdiction, most notably the extension of its judicial capacities in the 1980s. For many countries in Latin America, this represented a drastic change in United States antidrug policy. The enforcement of United States laws beyond United States borders, considered illegitimate by practically all nations, has been unique in the case of drug trafficking, in comparison both with previous practice and with approaches to other so-called transnational crimes. Perhaps the most important legislation affecting international narcotics control was the 1986 Anti–Drug Abuse Act, which outlawed the manufacture and distribution of drugs outside the United States if they were intended for export to American territory. This law provided the basis for United States federal grand jury indictments of foreign nationals, a practice that has increased over the last ten years.7

     The power of United States law enforcement officials was equally increased by important Supreme Court decisions that facilitated police activities outside the United States by the DEA and other agencies, for example, the Supreme Court’s refusal to apply the Fourth Amendment to searches by United States law enforcement agents in foreign countries (in United States v. Verdugo Urquídez) or the decision that United States courts could rule on cases involving criminals who had been kidnapped from other countries (in United States v. Alvarez Machaín). Over the last fifteen years, the DEA has maximized its capacity to gather evidence in foreign territories to be used in prosecutions in United States courts. It has also consolidated its power to obtain formal extradition of fugitives to the United States and to take drug traffickers and associated criminals to trial in the United States, luring them into United States territory or arranging an abduction.8

     The external expansion of United States antidrug activity can be explained as an effort to strip away the protection that criminals may obtain by changing national jurisdictions and as a response to the emergence of so-called transnational crimes, which compel law enforcers to look in other countries for information and to call for worldwide cooperation. This depiction of the internationalization of police presents the creation of a "transnational police" network as a natural response to the internationalization of crime. "Crime and law enforcement," Nadelmann argues, "have been internationalized by technological developments in much the same way as other types of transnational commerce and governmental regulation."9 In this framework, the internationalization of police is not problematic; it is further proof of inevitable globalization. This "transnationalization" argument cannot explain, however, why the export of police has become such a conflict-inducing issue between states (in particular, between notoriously unequal states) or why United States antidrug agents work abroad precisely the way they do.

     The transnationalization hypothesis is oblivious to the fact that intelligence gathering and law enforcement are functions over which all states claim sovereign, that is, exclusive jurisdiction. It seems analytically more fruitful to begin by acknowledging that while criminals may indeed illegally cross national borders, police are bound to abide by their own and other governments’ legislation, which invariably establishes a state monopoly over police and intelligence activities. Because police are national and policing a state affair, DEA agents acting in other countries cannot exercise the most important power granted to police officers, namely, the power of arrest. To work as an intelligence agency outside its jurisdiction (the only possible option under the sovereignty premise), the DEA needs the host government’s consent or it is guilty of engaging in illegal espionage. The significance of sovereignty explains why even the most powerful states need to strike agreements with other states, no matter how feeble, to make police cooperation possible.

     In this power politics framework, the internationalization of police can take only two forms: looking for a national counterpart (or creating one, the Americanization policy) or disregarding national jurisdictions. Consequently, the internationalization of the DEA is either the story of the reproduction of similar police units around the world, a basically successful story in the case of many European countries, or, as in Latin America, the story of an overreach, a systematic circumvention of sovereign restrictions on police and intelligence activities. That latter expansion of United States domestic authority abroad, I argue, has prevailed in Mexico and, one can presume, in many other Latin American countries.

The DEA in Mexico

The presence of United States drug-law enforcement agents in Mexico was almost simultaneous with the enactment, during the first two decades of this century, of United States laws prohibiting the import of drugs, many of which were produced in Mexico or traversed Mexican territory on their way to the United States market. In a study of international drug-control policy, the historian William O. Walker III has offered ample evidence of the unauthorized presence of United States antidrug agents in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. Walker documents unsuccessful bilateral negotiations, most of them initiated by the Mexican government, to formalize that presence. Efforts by the Mexican government to establish rules for the conduct of the drug-law enforcers were invariably a response to activities already underway. In 1930 the two countries reached an informal agreement for the exchange of information on drugs, which did not prevent United States antidrug agents from crossing the border and gathering drug-related intelligence — usually, but not always, notifying the United States embassy or consulates in Mexico of their activities.10

     By the end of the 1930s, still relying on informal agreements, Treasury Department special representatives policing the narcotics trade had become regular members of the American embassy in Mexico City or worked, as they had done in the 1920s, under the authority of United States consulates, mostly in northern Mexico. There is scant evidence, if any, regarding their number and activities after the 1930s, but there is no reason to assume that this situation changed before the mid-1940s. United States antidrug agents were not crucial in the 1938 Mexican opium eradication campaign and in the 1948 Mexican opium and marijuana eradication program, which is usually referred to as the first major campaign against drugs in that country.11 It was not until the 1970s that United States narcotics agents began playing a major role in the design and implementation of Mexican antidrug programs.

The DEA as a "Police Model": Molding a Counterpart

With many agents stationed in Mexico, in the 1970s the DEA tried to form a Mexican antinarcotics police unit trained in its own spirit and tactics. Turkey is frequently mentioned as the place where Richard M. Nixon launched the first United States "war on drugs," bringing that country to implement a draconian program of eradicating what had been legal opium crops. But the best showcase of this new policy’s success was not Turkey, but Mexico.

     The launching of a major antidrug campaign in Mexico, a turning point in the history of Mexico’s drug policy, was considered by both the United States and the Mexican governments as an example of what bilateral cooperation could accomplish. Three different programs were organized following DEA advice: eradication of crops (marijuana and opium poppy plants), interdiction of drugs in transit (including cocaine), and dislocation of drug-trafficking organizations. This three-pronged policy has not been altered since it was established, although the resources committed to each of the programs have varied. A fourth program, against money laundering, was initiated in the 1990s.12

     By 1975, when Operation Condor — the most ambitious drug crop eradication program to date — was launched, Mexico had become a major opium and marijuana production site, the main supplier of both drugs to the United States market, and a transit point for cocaine (a small market in those days). According to Mathea Falco, United States assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters in those years, Mexicans were supplying around 87 percent of the heroin and nearly 95 percent of the marijuana available on the United States market. Drug-trafficking organizations had acquired power in traditional drug-producing and -exporting states, such as Durango and Sinaloa, where the Mexican military, then and now the most important eradication force, had to fight not only the increase of illegal crops but also a growing number of armed peasants and smugglers.13

     For many years, the United States government had been fighting for more stringent enforcement of antidrug laws in Mexico. There is evidence that the DEA was concentrating efforts on the Mexican case and was ready to fight drug traffickers on its own or through a "joint law enforcement" program in which the Mexican government refused to participate.14

     The Mexican government was well aware of its own technical and institutional limitations and of the DEA’s superior police and intelligence capabilities. In 1973 the head of Mexico’s Federal Judicial Police had been arrested in San Antonio, Texas, with eighty-nine pounds of heroin in his possession. Thus, in order to regain control over intense drug-trafficking areas and to maintain drug-law enforcement as a national responsibility, the Mexican government opted for an aerial eradication campaign.15

     Full implementation of the United States – Mexican drug control program began in 1976. Under the circumstances (large expanses of land covered with marijuana and opium poppy plants and powerful, armed traffickers defending them), a massive aerial eradication campaign with defoliant chemicals seemed adequate. Mexican officials in charge of Operation Condor, the core program of the late-1970s campaign, were optimistic about the possibilities of suppressing the market once and for all: "before mid-year we are going to completely end the cultivation of drugs in this country," declared the civilian head of the campaign in January 1976.16

     Dozens of bilateral "letters of agreement" formalized financial and technical aid for the Mexican government, none of them mentioning the DEA’s support and activities. The core of the United States – Mexican program, however, was the training of a special antinarcotics unit in Mexico, following the DEA model. Building indigenous drug-fighting capabilities in drug-producing and -transit countries, that is, transforming foreign police into "vicarious surrogates," has been a preferred mode of DEA action in other countries, and the program continues today in most Latin American countries, Mexico included.17

     Around thirty DEA agents offered assistance in identifying fields. And after they discovered that some of the United States aircraft and equipment was not being used to eradicate drugs and that some was used to spray water rather than defoliants over the fields, they were allowed to oversee eradication operations. According to Richard Craig, one of the few political scientists in the United States who has studied Mexican drug policy in detail, 300 members of the 600-member Mexican Federal Judicial Police involved in fighting the trade in narcotics were assigned to the campaign full time. (That may be the number of Mexican police agents trained by the DEA in those days.)18

     The DEA’s roles in the interdiction phase (to seize drugs in transit) and the immobilization phase (to apprehend traffickers) were equally crucial. The Mexican police and the approximately thirty DEA agents stationed in Mexico gathered and exchanged information to build conspiracy cases against drug traffickers, especially those transporting drugs from South America to the United States. The bilateral program included the apprehension and expulsion to the United States of major drug traffickers "without resort to formal extradition procedures." The willingness of the Mexican government, and of many others in Latin America, to cooperate in this Operation Springboard of the 1970s "was facilitated by the fact that most of the targets were not citizens of their countries."19

     The results of these intensive and novel drug campaigns were astonishing. Mexican authorities were able to destroy most of the clandestine crops of marijuana and opium poppy in a few years. Thousands of hectares were defoliated. The amount of heroin and marijuana seized reached the highest levels ever, except for the seizure of marijuana in 1984. Major drug traffickers were incarcerated (the Herrera family, Jorge Favela Escobar, and others). The program was characterized by "good working relationships" between Mexican and United States officials, and it was considered a complete success. Mexico’s share of United States heroin and marijuana imports tumbled to around 25 percent or less in 1980, the lowest percentage ever.20

     The Americanization of antidrug programs abroad, emphasizing the training of foreign police units, was not unique to Mexico. The policy was successfully tried in Europe. In the case of many European police agencies, the DEA introduced new and often previously unaccepted police practices believed to be conducive to more effective drug-law enforcement. The DEA forced a relaxation of strict limits on a variety of police practices, many of them well-developed and legal conduct in the United States. Nadelmann argues that the European police have been successfully Americanized by the passage of legislation that permits more use of "proactive investigative techniques," such as the use of informants and of undercover operations, as well as the presentation in court of evidence gathered by such means.21

     But tailoring a DEA counterpart, with carefully selected candidates trained in antinarcotics tactics, has been impossible in Mexico and all other Latin American countries. Special agents end up relying on unacceptable police practices or fall victim to corruption by drug traffickers. Without the support of an effective and reliable police force and of a properly working judiciary, many officers are assassinated or killed in direct battles with traffickers. The policy, however, remains, with largely the same consequences.22

The DEA as an Intelligence Agency

Although it is not empowered to police other countries, the DEA does engage in police-related activities outside the United States, the most important of which is intelligence gathering. Intelligence gathering is crucial for the fulfillment of the agency’s main task: apprehending and incarcerating drug smugglers. Over the last two decades, however, the DEA has become "intimately involved in the more operational aspects of criminal investigation abroad, typically in collaboration with foreign police officials. They have recruited and run informants, conducted physical and electronic surveillance, employed undercover operations, [and] supervised controlled deliveries of illicit drugs."23

     The agency’s principal focus is on arrests and convictions, with a preference for stopping smugglers and eliminating drugs as close as possible to their source. Intelligence collected by the DEA around the world, plus drug-related intelligence gathered by many other United States agencies engaged in drug-law enforcement, including the military, is analyzed and transmitted to operational agencies through the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). Since drug-related information is stored and passed on to other law enforcers, national or foreign, contingent on a DEA decision, this gives the DEA, as the police agency of a superpower with a worldwide presence, an advantageous position, practically unparalleled, in international narcotics control. The other important intelligence-gathering agency after 1982, when it was granted concurrent jurisdiction with the DEA over drug law enforcement, is, of course, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).24

     As formal representatives of the DEA abroad, agents in Mexico work as a liaison — personal de enlace — with their colleagues in the United States and their Mexican counterparts, for the exchange of information. Some of the evidence collected by DEA agents comes from the Mexican police itself. The United States agents agree to share their own intelligence with the local counterparts — although they do not always do so — in order to facilitate the latter’s job of tracking down smugglers and trafficking routes.

     Paying informants is standard procedure for DEA agents. The money paid for drug-related information is substantial, and it is offered to a variety of people. Within the potentially huge world of possible informants, police and ex-police agents and members of drug-trafficking groups are the most valuable. While police and drug traffickers themselves can provide the most "juicy" information, they, like other informants, can also cheat DEA agents with misleading or false data. In the sordid world of informants, all of whom have interests that go beyond helping the police, anything can happen.

     More important than money, which a trafficker can easily outbid, the DEA can offer legal or undercover protection to police, traffickers, or other informants. It can offer effective and credible protection — for instance, under the witness protection program administered by the United States Marshals Service — to key informants, such as major drug traffickers. Protection can be informal and clandestine or open and legal, as in the case of drug traffickers from other countries taken to the United States and offered reduced sentences in exchange for information regarding the organization of the drug market in their own countries.

     Another police activity of DEA agents is undercover operations. An allowed police practice in the United States, it has proven a powerful technique in other countries too. Undercover operations by United States antidrug agents in Mexico can be traced, that is, documented, to at least the 1930s. Evidence on such activities is obviously difficult to obtain. What are available, with all their shortcomings, are biographies of police and intelligence agents and some consular papers. Most undercover operations today are "uncovered" by the media in the midst of major international scandals, such as the Camarena affair in February 1985. After the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena at the hands of Mexican traffickers and police who were on drug traffickers’ payroll, the Mexican government and public learned that Camarena had been working largely undercover. More recently, in 1998, an undercover operation against money laundering called Casablanca (which was not conducted by the DEA) was the origin of yet another diplomatic fight between Mexico and the United States.25

     Finally, the DEA sets up "controlled deliveries" as an evidence-gathering strategy and engages in electronic surveillance, typically wiretapping. That has proven an effective police instrument to uncover major money-laundering operations.

Policing Mexico: The Extraterritoriality Issue

Many of the police activities already outlined have been carried out by DEA agents in Mexico (and in many other Latin American countries) for a long time, and they have often been arranged with the Mexican police as an important participant. In fact, much of the "work" is done by Mexican agents who can either use their formal police powers or are paid by the DEA.

     In the 1980s, however, the DEA decided to work increasingly on its own, without notifying Mexican authorities, be they police or others. Without diminishing its customary activities — building local drug-fighting capabilities and gathering and sharing information — the DEA did abandon its traditional cooperative scheme with its counterparts in most of Latin America. In this framework, which had prevailed for many decades, DEA agents or their predecessors stationed themselves in other countries in order to assist local antinarcotics police in the enforcement of antidrug laws, to compile intelligence that could be used to seize drugs in transit or apprehend traffickers in United States territory, or to ask local police to do both. In other words, for a long time, the DEA was willing to work with local police and to assume its role as a police agency in a foreign country, accepting the restrictions imposed by host governments. These restrictions were never completely respected, but neither were they so blatantly disregarded as in the last decade.26

     Mexico was not the only country that experienced this new turn in United States drug policy. DEA agents and operations increased throughout Latin America, most notably in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. After 1986 the United States government pressed the governments of Peru and Colombia to declare the cocaine business a threat to national security. According to Walker, as those Latin American governments bowed to the pressure, they expanded their drug-control programs and came to rely on even more United States aid and growing numbers of DEA agents.27

     By the mid-1980s, the DEA had apparently decided that working with the Mexican police was hopeless. The Americanization effort of the 1970s had not led to a better narcotics police force in Mexico nor to a constant downsizing of the Mexican drug market.28 The new policy was based on a long-held but until then discreetly suppressed diagnosis about Mexican police, namely, that they were incorrigibly corrupt. Further, the DEA’s lack of confidence in local police who were all too frequently involved in drug trafficking led to distrust of the whole Mexican criminal justice system. The police agency thus turned to a forceful diplomacy to influence other countries’ antidrug programs and to clear the way for a new experiment: acting as a "transnational police."

     While the DEA was not the only United States law enforcement agency interested in publicizing corruption in Mexico in the 1980s, in the case of drug-related corruption it was certainly the best informed and the one that fought most decidedly against it. In their new role as tough diplomats, DEA agents found that the prevailing environment in the United States allowed them to escalate pressure on recalcitrant governments. Political pressure took many forms, from promoting media and congressional oversight of corrupt police agencies in Mexico to leaking information to the United States press that incriminated Mexican politicians and high-ranking officials (with or without basis), compiling lists of prominent Mexicans presumably involved in drug trafficking, and calling for a "partial closure" of the United States – Mexican border in February 1985 (a week-long heightening of scrutiny of vehicles and people crossing the border) to accelerate Mexican investigations of Camarena’s kidnapping in Guadalajara.29

     Thus discrediting their counterparts, DEA agents turned "more operational" in countries such as Mexico, aided by the United States government’s increasing assertion of judicial extraterritoriality. Taking Mexican criminals to the United States by means forbidden by Mexican law — another way in which DEA agents have tried to make their police power effective beyond United States borders — was an important part of the new antidrug strategy. The kidnappings of René Martin Verdugo-Urquídez in 1986 and Humberto Alvarez Machaín in 1990, both Mexican citizens and residents suspected of involvement in the death of Enrique Camarena, were the most conspicuous, but not the only, abductions of Mexican citizens sponsored by the DEA in Mexico.

The single most important catalyst of the new policy [the "irregular rendition of fugitives"] was the abduction, torture, and murder of Enrique Camarena. . . . When U.S. efforts to investigate the incident faced not just resistance on the part of the Mexican authorities but also substantial evidence that top Mexican officials had been involved in both the abduction and the subsequent cover-up, the DEA and the Justice Department officials reacted with fury. . . . the drug enforcement agency combined with federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials in an all-out effort to track down those involved in Camarena’s murder and ensure that they were brought to trial.30 A similar punitive outreach was also observed among United States prosecutors, who began utilizing subpoenas more readily to obtain information from abroad, especially in cases involving money laundering, and also in United States courts, where the number of foreigners indicted on drug-trafficking charges grew to unprecedented levels. The number of Mexicans, some of them quite prominent, indicted in United States courts and incarcerated in United States prisons for drug-related crimes showed a dramatic increase toward the end of the decade.

     All antidrug law enforcement operations in Mexico, from the more traditional to the more sophisticated, were enlarged and enhanced. In a wild effort to circumvent national jurisdictions limiting their power, DEA agents decided to rely more heavily on the possibility of extraterritorially enforcing United States laws. In practical terms that meant working toward the indictment of foreigners, in this case Mexicans, in United States courts, taking Mexican drug traffickers to the United States, presenting them to United States courts, and putting them in United States prisons. In the worst-case scenarios, the extraterritorial enforcement of United States drug laws ended in United States occupation, albeit temporary, as in Bolivia in 1986, or invasion, as in Panama in 1989.

     The new policy, unsurprisingly, became a serious concern for Mexican authorities and the most important source of conflict between Mexico and the United States over drug trafficking.

Negotiating with the DEA: Understanding the Host Country

The Mexican government’s first, early-twentieth-century, reaction to the presence of United States drug-law enforcement agents in its territory, which usually involved a sporadic, unauthorized police crossing at the United States – Mexican border in search of fugitives, was to outlaw hot pursuit and to offer law enforcement cooperation in return for United States acknowledgement of the Mexican border. Thus the illegal crossing into Mexican territory by United States law enforcers in hot pursuit of criminals represented the first, and for a long time remained the most open, form of disregard for national jurisdictions.

     Bilateral clashes over sovereignty during the first decades of this century were always acrimonious. Toward the end of the 1930s they were solved by informally authorizing the presence of United States antinarcotics agents in Mexico to gather intelligence (a presence that the Mexican government was unable to prevent), regulating the crossings of United States law enforcers (who were required to inform Mexican authorities about their crossing and departure dates in advance), and offering more effective assistance against border-crossing outlaws, drug traffickers, and others. None of these Mexican rulings was always observed.31

     Sovereignty has been the most important power resource at the disposal of the Mexican government in its dealings with United States antinarcotics police. Sovereign prerogatives, which foreign security forces can challenge, explain Mexico’s long-standing resistance to granting United States police agents access to Mexican territory; they also explain why international agreements are in order when governments assist each other in the police and criminal justice realms.

     That sovereign power notwithstanding, bilateral agreements on the fundamental points were impossible for many decades, and even today those agreements are continuously revised. Until the late 1960s, Mexican authorities were unable and at times unwilling to negotiate a formal bilateral framework to establish the rules of conduct for United States drug enforcement agents in Mexico. "Mexico chose," says Walker, "largely to ignore what could have been construed as serious challenges to its sovereignty." More often than not, however, the United States government refused to discuss details regarding American narcotics agents in Mexico with the Mexican government.32 Both governments may have benefited from keeping the arrangements informal: Mexico expressing its basic disapproval and hoping that United States agents would assume their status as a police force in a foreign territory and act accordingly, the United States content to work basically unrestricted, without having to abide by its host’s rules. This informality, nevertheless, was a factor in United States agents’ working as far away from public and governmental eyes as possible. For the Mexican government, that was a highly undesirable development.

     Mexico’s decision to embrace open and formal cooperation with the DEA in the 1970s was largely a result of its inability to control DEA agents within its own territory. Unable to rely solely on its authority to mold the behavior of those police agents, the Mexican government made bilateral agreement its chosen means to limit United States police authority in Mexico. The United States government was willing to sign such agreements because it admitted, at least in principle, the need to have authorized and continuous access to Mexican police and to Mexico’s criminal world. With the deliberate purpose of deterring aggressive DEA tactics in the aftermath of Camarena’s assassination (most notably tactics of gathering evidence in Mexico for use in the prosecution of Mexicans in United States courts and the rendition of Mexican fugitives from United States justice), Mexican officials tried to accelerate the signing of a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) in 1987, in force as of May 1991, and asked for a modification of the 1978 United States – Mexican Extradition Treaty. The Mexican government also signed a bilateral agreement specifically proscribing abductions of Mexican citizens and sought to renegotiate bilateral guidelines for the activities of DEA agents in Mexico. In the 1980s, much of Mexico’s haste to come to terms with the United States on drug-trafficking issues was the result of DEA activities that were considered an unacceptable breach of Mexican sovereignty. The 1989 Agreement on Cooperation in Combatting Narcotics Trafficking and Drug Dependency emphasizes that "The Parties will fulfill their obligations under this Agreement in accordance with the principles of self-determination, non-intervention in internal affairs, legal equality, and respect for the territorial integrity of States." The very text of the treaties is thus quite eloquent regarding Mexico’s interest in keeping drug-law enforcement as an exclusive prerogative of the state.33

     Apart from seeking bilateral understandings and forcefully protesting violations of them, the other typical response of the Mexican government to the internationalization of United States narcotics police has been enacting laws to regulate DEA activities in Mexico. The kidnapping of Alvarez Machaín, for instance, had an immediate effect on Mexico’s laws regarding DEA agents in its territory. In legislation sent by the Mexican president to Congress and quickly passed, transnational kidnapping was established as a crime "against the homeland." Mexican citizens who collaborated or participated "in the kidnapping of persons within the national territory for the purpose of their being delivered to foreign authorities" were to be severely punished. Foreigners who participated in kidnapping for similar purposes were subject to immediate expulsion. In addition, in July 1992 the Mexican president issued a "Decree on Rules for the Temporary Stay of Foreign Agencies Representatives." Those agents

may only serve as liaison with the Mexican government for the purpose of sharing information; their stay in the country shall be temporary; they are compelled to "strictly observe applicable Mexican legislation"; and at no time may they engage in functions "expressly assigned to Mexican authorities." . . . Agents shall be accredited before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and registered before the Ministry of the Interior, and the Office of the Attorney General. They will not be immune from penal codes. They may not have contacts with other authorities than those specified in the Decree.34 Information obtained by foreign agents, according to the new legislation, must be shared "immediately" with their Mexican counterparts. Foreign agents promoting, or engaging in the "incitement" of others to undertake, the kidnapping of Mexican nationals to another country shall be expelled "automatically" from the country, the respective cooperation accord shall be "'immediately suspended,’ and the responsible foreign nation will be prevented from engaging in any further such activity in Mexico."35

     President Carlos Salinas spoke strongly on the issue of kidnapping. At the end of a Salinas – George Bush meeting in San Diego on July 14, 1992, the Mexican president rejected as invalid the decision of the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Alvarez Machaín upholding the kidnapping of foreign nationals by United States police. He declared that "Mexico forbids the operations of foreign agents in its territory," "allows their presence only for drug information purposes," and "will act strongly against whoever engages in violations of the pertinent law."36

     A third response, which I will mention only in passing, to actual or possible encroachments on Mexican sovereign faculties to enforce antidrug laws has been to reorganize Mexican programs against drug trafficking. All major "wars on drugs" undertaken by the Mexican government have had an important outward orientation. This is not to minimize the domestic political threat posed by Mexican drug traffickers. Mexican drug policy has been designed both to "prevent drug traffickers from directly confronting state authority and, equally important, to prevent U.S. police and judicial authorities from acting as a surrogate justice system in Mexico."37

     If the sovereign right to grant, and establish the terms of, United States police access to its national territory has been Mexico’s most important strength, the lack of a properly working criminal justice system, specifically the absence of a professional police, has been its main weakness. The institutional limitations on Mexico’s effective control of its illegal drug market have perhaps been the most important impediment to keeping antidrug law enforcement a national affair.

     Mexico’s quest for autonomy has been hampered, in fact rendered impossible, by an increasingly punitive antidrug policy that has stimulated, rather than halted, drug production and trafficking. The 1980s drug boom that Mexican authorities unsuccessfully tried to suppress had a devastating impact on a traditionally feeble criminal justice system, as the levels of drug-related corruption and violence in Mexico show. Typically, when confronted with an emergency — as in the mid-1970s, the mid-1980s, and the mid-1990s — Mexican officials in charge of narcotics control have relied on DEA support to compensate for technical and institutional weaknesses. Such reliance is a common thread in, for example, the aerial eradication program implemented by the administrations of Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo (Operation Condor), the air interdiction program against cocaine smuggling during the Salinas administration (the Northern Border Response Force), and the current programs to seize drugs crossing Mexican territorial waters and to fight money laundering. At the core of all those antidrug programs have been joint United States – Mexican efforts, relying heavily on DEA advice and intelligence.

     As drug traffickers become more powerful and sophisticated, the Mexican drug-law enforcement system is less able to develop effective countermeasures. In the 1970s the Mexican government did develop a capacity to eradicate drugs, heavily relying on its military. Over time, the presence of the Mexican army in areas of opium and marijuana cultivation has grown to around twenty-five thousand soldiers; they are engaged almost year round in manual eradication. Mexico also has the largest air fleet on the continent for defoliating drug plants (mainly helicopters and light aircraft for aerial spraying and transportation of personnel). Although the continuous presence of the armed forces in rural areas may be regarded as a political necessity and relying on soldiers a better option than increasing the number and powers of police, eradication programs have shown their limitations: they are ineffective in reducing drug cultivation and smuggling.38

     Since 1987, most of the budget of the attorney general’s office in Mexico has been assigned to federal antidrug law enforcement, and antidrug activities dominate the work of that office as far as implementation of justice is concerned. Police training, as well as the systematic discharge of police agents involved in drug trafficking, has become routine. Yet for all those efforts, Mexico does not have a working judiciary. Not only police, but also judges, prosecutors, and prison custodians have been bought or intimidated by drug traffickers. The professionalization of police remains the most elusive of all Mexican programs to reform its criminal justice system.

     In this context, the DEA may be valuable to the Mexican government in several ways: It acts as a warning mechanism regarding the extent of police and other government officials’ corruption; it provides information on international drug trafficking that the Mexican police cannot possibly gather on its own; and it is a constant reminder of the weaknesses of local police agencies. Moreover, relying on the DEA and, at times, on the United States criminal justice system can be a last resort for Mexican authorities, a desperate way out, as the deportation in 1996 of the smuggler Juan García Abrego to the United States demonstrated.39

     Mexico’s lack of control over its own police simply extends to foreign police. The ways and means of Mexican police agents are as contrary to the rule of law as are unauthorized DEA practices. In fact, very frequently, questionable DEA activities cannot be called illegal given the absence of domestic legislation proscribing them. To the extent that DEA agents hide information from the host government (arguing that their Mexican counterparts are totally corrupt), their activities can be best described as standard espionage. To the extent that Mexican police are paid (by the DEA) to send delinquents to the United States in violation of Mexican law or are remunerated to work for the DEA, the Mexican state loses its monopoly over law enforcement and intelligence gathering in the territory it claims to govern. To the extent that an increasing number of Mexican drug traffickers face trial in United States courts, the territoriality of law enforcement is at stake.

     For traffickers and corrupt officials, the DEA represents a major threat to the continuation of their illegal businesses. For honest police, working with DEA agents can easily turn into working for them. Neither promotion nor permanence in their jobs depends on the foreign agents, but they can influence both. Whatever the day-to-day relationship between Mexican police and DEA agents, there is little evidence that over time they have developed a "sense of professionalism and police comradeship which transcends national borders," as seems to be the case in the interaction between European and American police.40


Students of world politics who focus on transnational relations explain the internationalization of police as the result of nations’ common interest in fighting transnational crimes; police cooperation between countries in the form of joint law enforcement operations will be a natural corollary of the inevitable rise in transnational activities, both legal and illegal.

     The internationalization of the most important United States police agency enforcing antidrug laws, the DEA, has been dramatic during the last twenty years. The activities of DEA agents in Mexico, and presumably in many other Latin American countries, do not quite fit within the model of international police in a borderless world. Rather, the DEA’s presence and work in Mexico is best explained as the extraterritorial enforcement of United States antidrug laws.

     In its effort to stop drug smuggling into the United States, the DEA has not only proposed a police model for other countries to follow but has also worked as an intelligence-gathering agency in foreign territories, learned to put pressure on other governments, and, finally, tried to become a transnational police by increasingly relying on extraterritorially enforcing United States laws.

     The sovereign authority that practically all governments bring to bear on foreign police agents, of whatever nationality, explains that the DEA has been forced, while abroad, either to circumvent national jurisdictions or to reshape, that is, Americanize, drug-law enforcement in host countries as the only means to bolster United States drug-law enforcement capabilities. For years, the creation and training of specialized antinarcotics police units and intelligence gathering were the DEA’s most important jobs outside the United States. In Mexico, building a suitable counterpart agency has not been possible. After the Americanization of drug-law enforcement by other countries failed, the DEA slowly but surely itself Americanized enforcement toward the end of the 1980s.41 New or modified United States antidrug laws, coupled with the export of legally and politically well equipped DEA agents, presented a novel and unique challenge to state authority in many Latin American countries.

     The DEA’s ascendancy over Mexican drug policy has been significant. It has notoriously influenced antidrug legislation; the content, pace, and intensity of drug control programs; and police practices and targets. In some ways, during the 1980s the influence of DEA agents was probably stronger abroad than in the United States.

     Mexico has responded to the stationing of United States antidrug agents in its territory in three ways: (1) legislating to prohibit specific activities by foreign police agents; (2) negotiating bilateral agreements on the limits to those agents’ capacities; and (3) adopting more stringent antidrug programs. Yet, by and large, the Mexican state has been unable to make DEA agents behave as befits representatives of a foreign police agency. Mexico’s increasing reliance on United States police and intelligence also explains an extremely peculiar situation — the admitting of superior security forces into one’s own territory.

     As the Mexican government has painfully learned over time, DEA agents are far from being freewheeling enforcement agents fighting drug traffickers around the world. Their police activities both in the United States and abroad contract or expand with United States policy and legislation.42 Historically, United States narcotics agents have been more effectively restricted in their activities abroad by their own government than by Mexican decisions and legislation. The foreign agent’s ultimate duty is to his own country; he may risk disobedience abroad, but he must be careful to comply with his own government’s regulations. In this sense, United States drug-law enforcers traveling abroad cannot be seen as part of an effort to constitute an international police force, but rather as a national police working, with more or less restriction, in another polity.

     The internationalization of police has been the result of a world power extending its police and judicial arms into other countries — in Latin America, into countries with extremely weak criminal justice systems. Thus, in the case of the United States and Mexico, two fundamentally unequal nations test the extent and the limits of sovereignty.

María Celia Toro is director of the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de México. A shorter version of this article was published in Spanish in Homenaje a Rafael Segovia, ed. Fernando Serrano Migallón (Mexico City, 1998). The author wishes to thank David Thelen and Susan Armeny for assistance in the preparation of this article.

Readers may contact Toro at [email protected].

1 Ethan A. Nadelmann, Cops across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement (University Park, 1993), xix.

2 Hans J. Morgenthau, "The Political Conditions for an International Police Force," International Organization, 17 (no. 2, 1963), 393; Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 111.

3 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 95. See also David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New Haven, 1973), 183.

4 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 95, 139 – 40.

5 The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is neither the only United States law enforcement agency enforcing antidrug laws today nor the only law enforcement body with an international presence, but it is certainly the most important on both accounts.

6 U.S. General Accounting Office, National Security and International Affairs Division, Drug Control: International Narcotics Activities of the United States: Briefing Report to the Honorable Frank H. Murkowski, U.S. Senate (Washington, 1987), 3.

7 "Anti – Drug Abuse Act of 1986," Public Law 99-570, H.R. 5484, 99 Cong., 2 sess., Oct. 1986.

8 United States v. Verdugo Urquídez , 494 U.S. 259 (1990); United States v. Alvarez Machaín, 504 U.S. 655 (1992); Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Limits to National Jurisdiction: Documents and Judicial Resolutions on the Alvarez Machaín Case (Mexico City, 1992). For the expansion of United States police and judiciary abroad, see Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 463 – 78; and Samuel I. del Villar, "La Suprema Corte de Justicia de Estados Unidos y la Doctrina Bush-Rehnquist frente a México" (The United States Supreme Court and the Bush-Rehnquist doctrine regarding Mexico), in México – Estados Unidos – Canadá, 1991 – 1992, ed. Gustavo Vega (Mexico City, 1993).

9 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 105.

10 William O. Walker III, Drug Control in the Americas (Albuquerque, 1981).

11 Ibid., 119 – 33; Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 93 – 97.

12 On Mexican policy against drugs since the beginning of the century, see María Celia Toro, Mexico’s "War" on Drugs: Causes and Consequences (Boulder, 1995).

13 Mathea Falco, Winning the War on Drugs: A National Strategy (New York, 1989), 36. Peter A. Lupsha, "Drug Trafficking: Mexico and Colombia in Comparative Perspective," Journal of International Affairs, 35 (no. 1, 1981), 99.

14 Domestic Council, Drug Abuse Task Force, White Paper on Drug Abuse: A Report to the President (Washington, 1975), 50.

15 Lyle C. Brown, "The Politics of U.S.-Mexican Relations: Problems of the 1970s in Historical Perspective," in Contemporary Mexico, ed. James W. Wilkie et al. (Berkeley, 1976), 484. On the technical and financial assistance from the United States government to the Mexican eradication campaign, see Richard Craig, "Operation Condor: Mexico’s Antidrug Campaign Enters a New Era," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 22 (Aug. 1980), 345 – 63; and James Michael Van Wert, "Government of Mexico Herbicidal Opium Poppy Eradication Program: A Summative Evaluation" (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1982).

16 Richard Craig, "Human Rights and Mexico’s Anti-Drug Campaign," Social Science Quarterly , 60 (March 1980), 692.

17 Ethan A. Nadelmann, "Cops across Borders: Transnational Crime and International Law Enforcement" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1987), 303.

18 Richard Craig, "La Campaña Permanente: Mexico’s Anti-Drug Campaign," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 20 (May 1978), 119 – 20.

19 Ibid., 120. Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 439.

20 For Mexican figures on the amount of drugs destroyed or confiscated every year, 1974 – 1994, see Toro, Mexico’s "War" on Drugs, 19 – 20, 25 – 26. James Michael Van Wert, "El control de los narcóticos en México: Una década de institucionalización y un asunto diplomático" (The control of narcotics in Mexico: A decade of institutionalization and a diplomatic affair), in México – Estados Unidos 1985, ed. Gabriel Székely (Mexico, 1986), 98. The figures regarding Mexico’s share of United States imports vary depending on the sources used but they all coincide on the basic downward trend in the second half of the seventies.

21 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 189 – 249.

22 The acting director of the Mexican specialized antidrug unit (Instituto Nacional de Combate a las Drogas), José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was indicted in February 1997 for alleged involvement with drug traffickers. See Time, March 3, 1997, p. 19.

23 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 107.

24 U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, The Border War on Drugs (Washington, 1987), 33.

25 See Walker, Drug Control in the Americas; and Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 96. On the Camarena affair, see Juan David Lindau, "Percepciones mexicanas de la política exterior de Estados Unidos: El caso Camarena Salazar" (Mexican perceptions of United States foreign policy: The case of Camarena Salazar), Foro Internacional (Mexico City), 27 (April – June 1987), 562 – 75. On Casablanca, see Time, June 1, 1998, pp. 12 – 17.

26 María Celia Toro, "Estrategias mexicanas de negociación: El caso del narcotráfico" (Mexican negotiating strategies: The case of drug trafficking), in México ante el fin de la Guerra Fría (Mexico at the end of the Cold War), ed. Ilán Bizberg (Mexico, 1998), 334 – 35.

27 William O. Walker III, "International Collaboration in Historical Perspective," in Drug Policy in the Americas, ed. Peter H. Smith (Boulder, 1992), 275.

28 For the best analysis of United States expectations regarding Mexican antidrug programs, see Peter Reuter, Quest for Integrity: The Mexican-U.S. Drug Issue in the 1980s (Santa Monica, 1992).

29 Lindau, "Percepciones mexicanas de la política exterior de Estados Unidos."

30 Nadelmann, Cops across Borders, 447.

31 Walker, Drug Control in the Americas. On changes in Mexico’s antidrug programs in the 1930s, see Robert L. Jones, The Eighteenth Amendment and Our Foreign Relations (New York, 1933).

32 Walker, "International Collaboration in Historical Perspective," 273.

33 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Mutual Legal Assistance Cooperation Treaty with Mexico, S. Treaty Doc. 100 – 13, 100 Cong., 2 sess., Feb. 16, 1988; Extradition Treaty between the United States of America and the United Mexican States, May 4, 1978, 31 U.S.T. 5059, T.I.A.S. No. 9656. For the passage from the 1989 agreement, see Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Limits to National Jurisdiction, 54 – 55. See also ibid., 36.

34 Eugenio Ursúa Cocke, "Drug Traffic, Law and International Relations," Revista de Investigaciones Jurídicas (Mexico City), 18 (no. 18, 1994), 291 – 92.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 292 – 93.

37 Toro, Mexico’s "War" on Drugs, 2.

38 The program combines aerial and manual eradication. After fields are sprayed from the air with defoliants, soldiers cover the fields, using machetes to cut, or manually pulling out, opium poppies and marijuana plants. Cutting poppy plants is necessary because for a day or two after herbicidal spraying, the flowers can still be harvested and used to produce opium. Marijuana, similarly, may sometimes be packed and shipped for consumption immediately after spraying. Sergio García Ramírez, Narcotráfico: Un punto de vista mexicano (Drug-trafficking: A Mexican point of view) (Mexico City, 1989); Peter Reuter, "Eternal Hope: America’s Quest for Narcotics Control," Public Interest (no. 79, 1985), 79 – 95; Javier Treviño, "Evaluación de la estrategia internacional de erradicación de cultivos" (An evaluation of the international strategy for [drug] crop eradication), paper delivered at the conference "El Colegio de México – Harvard sobre un Nuevo Enfoque a la Estrategia Antinarcóticos México – Estados Unidos," April 1988 (in María Celia Toro’s possession).

39 Reforma (Mexico City), Jan. 17, 1996.

40 Ethan A. Nadelmann, "Unlaundering Dirty Money Abroad: U.S. Foreign Policy and Financial Secrecy Jurisdictions," University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 18 (no. 1, 1986), 43.

41 Bruce M. Bagley, "Colombia and the War on Drugs," Foreign Affairs, 67 (no. 1, 1988), 70 – 92.

42 For a similar argument on the conduct of powerful transnational actors, see Stephen D. Krasner, "Power Politics, Institutions, and Transnational Relations," in Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures, and International Institutions, ed. Thomas Risse-Kappen (New York, 1995).

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