'El Chapo' Bust: Controversy Reemerges Over US Drones in Mexico

'El Chapo' Bust: Controversy Reemerges Over US Drones in Mexico

On February 22nd, the details of the arrest of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán were slow to emerge. The notorious leader of the Sinaloa Federation, the largest and most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, had been on the run from authorities for 13 years. Word was that he was paying his bodyguards and corrupt police at last $1 million per month to keep his whereabouts secret, and for a long time it worked.      

However over the weekend, his luck ran out. Guzmán grew tired of being holed up in his mountain sanctuary and started becoming more lax in his security protocols. Mexican authorities were hot on his tail in the city of Culiacán, but he managed to escape through a series of tunnels under various buildings. Then he fled to the resort area of Mazatlán, where he was captured in a hotel room without a shot being fired, seemingly unaware that the Mexican marines were upon him.

So how did the Mexican military finally find him after all this time? Multiple media reports said the operation was in the works for several weeks, and that the DEA intercepted phone calls from a satellite phone Guzmán used during this time. Unconfirmed reports indicate the number of that satellite phone was derived from the arrest of the son of El Chapo’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. US officials have also confirmed that American drones were used for surveillance operations in Culiacán: “The US surveillance drone was used for two weeks between mid-January and mid-February to back up a massive operation in the northwestern city of Culiacán, a US government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.”

The key statement in this story–and also the one most likely to stir up controversy–is this: “[The drone] had been deployed in Culiacán to corroborate other intelligence and that Mexico’s military had authorized its use.” As soon as this information was published, Twitter erupted with claims that the use of U.S. drones in Mexico violated that nation’s constitution, and it was also a violation of Mexico’s sovereignty. It turns out that both of these statements are doubtful.

On February 24, law professor and columnist John Ackerman posted the following message on Twitter, with a link to an article he wrote about the issue for The Daily Beast in March 2011:

I had seen this argument before, so I got curious. In the article, Ackerman states, “In a desperate attempt to help Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón with his “drug war,” Obama has authorized the U.S. military and other government agents to violate the Mexican constitution.” He also says, “The Mexican constitution also requires the president to gain approval of its senate before allowing foreign military operations in domestic airspace.”

The controversy lies in the fact that President Enrique Peña Nieto specifically requested the assistance of US drones, and it wasn’t the first time such a request had been made. In 2009, then-President Felipe Calderón requested the use of a US Customs and Border Protection drone in 2009 to assist in the capture of drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva. According to a New York Times story from 2011, Mexico’s National Security Council officially sanctioned the use of US military Global Hawk drones, but didn’t inform other Mexican politicians.

While clearly controversial, the legal status of these drones–requested because their capabilities are superior to those of the drones in Mexico’s arsenal–isn’t so clear. I decided to find out for myself what I could, and read through both the English translation of the constitution (by the Organization of American States) and the original Spanish version. After reading through each two times, I couldn’t find a specific title, chapter, or article that said anything about the Mexican president needing senate approval before allowing foreign military operations over Mexican soil. There may be Mexican federal statutes that outline these prohibitions, but it’s not in the constitution as far as I can tell.

It’s also an important distinction to note that while the operation to find and capture El Chapo was carried out on the ground by the Mexican marines–the drone, surveillance, and wiretap support was provided by U.S. law enforcement agencies that fall under the Department of Justice–not the Department of Defense. It may sound like a gray area, and I wonder at the wisdom of going up against the statements of a law professor who works and lives in Mexico. But this was a joint operation not involving the US military, and while some Mexican citizens might not be happy about it, I can’t see on paper where this collaborative cross-border success violated either the Mexican constitution or sovereignty.

That being said, I’m not a legal expert in any way, shape, or form, and I welcome the opportunity to learn more about the controversial use of U.S drones in Mexico.

Follow Sylvia Longmire on Twitter @DrugWarAnalyst