Cross-Border ‘Boomerang’ Operations Boost US-Mexico Anti-Drug Efforts
On January 29, 2016, southern Arizona residents and news reporters were on high alert. Blackhawk helicopters were flying back and forth between the border town of Lukeville and Sonoyta, Mexico for over 12 hours, and no clues about their purpose were forthcoming. KVOA local news reporter Michel Marizco posted several tweets about what he was seeing—as well as the lack of public information.
“About 50 federal and state agents are gathered on the Arizona side. Federal officials from Mexico City are here as well as embassy officials,” he posted at 9:42am. Two minutes later, he wrote, “The Blackhawks launched from Arizona, two have so far returned. A third is still flying over Sonora.” His efforts to obtain any official statement were futile: “This from ICE: “We will not be able to accommodate any on camera interviews and, at this time, I do not have any info I can provide.” Many hours later at 4:15pm, he posted, “Another Blackhawk flies from Arizona into Mexico. This is [sic] been going on nearly 12 hours now.”
It turned out the air show was all a part of a joint cross-border operation between several US federal and Arizona state agencies and the Mexican government. At approximately 5:25pm, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released the following statement:
ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents, working in conjunction with our law enforcement partners from other federal agencies, several Arizona agencies and the Government of Mexico, are assisting Mexican authorities with an arrest operation. As this is an ongoing investigation, no further details are available at this time. The operation targets criminal elements and organizations operating in and around Sonoyta, Mexico.
These cross-border flights and staging on the US side of the border, known as “boomerang” operations are not new. However, their existence isn’t widely known to the US or Mexican public, and sometimes they’re intentionally kept a secret from high-level officials in the areas where they’re happening. In August 2011, former New York Times reporter Ginger Thompson wrote:
Officials said these so-called boomerang operations were intended to evade the surveillance — and corrupting influences — of the criminal organizations that closely monitor the movements of security forces inside Mexico. And they said the efforts were meant to provide settings with tight security for American and Mexican law enforcement officers to collaborate in their pursuit of criminals who operate on both sides of the border.
The sad truth is these kinds of operations have become necessary due to the high levels of drug cartel-induced corruption within Mexican law enforcement agencies and government institutions. KVOA’s Marizco reported that even the mayor of Sonoyta, nor his police officers, wasn’t informed about the operation, called Diablo Express, that eventually resulted in 22 arrests. Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University in Houston, told Yahoo! News, “It’s new, it’s innovative, and I think it’s a recognition by Mexico that they’re just not going to be able to do it by themselves.” He added, “What is unique here is that what we have is definitely much greater, broader, and deeper cooperation between the two countries on law enforcement operations.”
These operations are still relatively rare, but may become more common. Since current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, he has tried to pull back from accepting too much US counterdrug assistance. However, it appears the reality has sunk in that his government is incapable of making a dent in cartel operations on its own. But despite any success achieved by these operations, individuals who are arrested must still go through the Mexican justice system, which is notorious for its inefficiency and lack of transparency. Improved cross-border cooperation is always a positive, but rendered useless if they ultimately have no impact on cartel operations or northbound drug flows.
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