MEXICO CITY — U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been surreptitiously flying Predator drones into Mexico for two years, helping Mexican authorities spy on suspected drug traffickers, The Associated Press has learned.
The border security agency's surveillance flights, approved by Mexico but never announced by either country, predate occasional flights into Mexico by the U.S. Air Force's $38 million Global Hawk drone that began last month.
Mexico's National Security Council said in a statement Wednesday that unmanned aircraft have flown over Mexico on specific occasions, mainly along the border with the U.S., to gather information at the request of the Mexican government.
The flights expand the U.S. role in the drug war, in which Americans already have been training Mexican soldiers and police as well as cooperating on other intelligence.
"When these operations are carried out, they are always done with the authorization, oversight and supervision of national agencies, including the Mexican Air Force," the council said.
It said Mexico always defines the objectives, the information to be gathered and the specific tasks in which the drones will be used and insisted the operations respected Mexican law, civil and human rights.
The drones "have been particularly useful in achieving various objectives of combating crime and have significantly increased Mexican authorities' capabilities and technological superiority in its fight against crime," the council said.
The drones, which cost more than $10 million each, are equipped with cameras that can identify an object the size of a milk carton, provide real-time images to ground control operators and can fly for more than 30 hours without having to refuel, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
The Global Hawk drone operations were first reported Wednesday by The New York Times, which said they began last month under an agreement between President Barack Obama and Mexico's leader, Felipe Calderon. AP's reporting found that similar operations using a different kind of drone have been going on since 2009.
The flights were quickly criticized by some Mexican politicians, who have often been sensitive to the involvement of U.S. agencies on Mexican soil.
Sen. Ricardo Monreal of the leftist Labor Party said having U.S. drones flying over Mexico is "unconstitutional and it violates national sovereignty." He issued a statement accusing Calderon's government of being "too submissive to the neighbor to the north" and said Mexico's Senate was never informed of either drone operation.
Last week, the Mexican Senate voted to summon Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, to talk about allegations that U.S. agents allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico as part of investigations into drug trafficking.
More than 35,000 people have died since Calderon launched a stepped-up offensive against the cartels upon taking office in late 2006.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection began flying Predator B drones into Mexico in early 2009, said an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with knowledge of the operations. The official agreed to discuss the program only if not quoted by name.
The agency operates four Predator B's along the border, the official said. They are similar to craft used by the U.S. military to make missile strikes on suspected terrorists in Pakistan, though the model used by the border agency is equipped with only advanced surveillance equipment, not weapons. Unlike the high-altitude Global Hawk, the smaller $4 million Predator typically flies at around 18,000 feet.
The Predator flights were first suggested by the U.S. border agency, but once they actually started the missions were based on specific requests from the Mexican government and were done with a Mexican official at the command center where the flight was controlled, the official said.
"They only occur based on intelligence from the Mexicans," the official said.
The Predator flights continue and there have been dozens of them into Mexico, the official said. Mexico responded to the U.S. proposal by requesting flights twice a week, but that was soon scaled back to once every other week, the official said.
A former Customs and Border Protection employee close to the drone program said the flights were not that frequent. In 2009, he said, there were occasional "proof of concept" flights, which would last about 10 hours and would venture no more than 10 miles south of the border. The former employee insisted on speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Juan Munoz-Torres, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged that in July 2009, the agency sent a drone into Mexico to help investigate the murder of CBP Agent Robert Rosas, who was shot and killed while on patrol near San Diego.
"At the request of the U.S. government and concurrence of the government of Mexico, the (drone) was flown in Mexico airspace to support law enforcement officers assigned to search and apprehend agent Rosas' murder suspects who fled into Mexico," Munoz-Torres said.
A 17-year-old boy later turned himself in to U.S. authorities, pleaded guilty to Rosas' murder, and was sentenced last year to 40 years in federal prison.
When asked about U.S. drones flying into Mexico, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said Wednesday that his agency "actively partners with our neighbors to the north and south on a wide variety of law enforcement missions, and shares mutually beneficial information and security resources when appropriate."
There is a 20-year history of U.S. government aircraft flying over Mexican territory in pursuit of drug activity.
Starting in 1990, U.S. Customs pilots routinely flew small Cessna Citation 2 jets with a Mexican co-pilot over northern Mexico to hunt for drug-runners' aircraft. The program, known as Operation Halcon, started after U.S. efforts to stop drug smugglers flying small airplanes into the U.S. territory prompted traffickers to land just on the Mexican side of the border and then load up drugs for a drive north.
In May 2001, former commissioner of U.S. Customs Service Charles Winwood told a U.S. Senate committee that Customs had two Cessnas stationed in Mexico, one in Hermosillo and the other in Monterrey. The U.S. had others stationed elsewhere in Latin America.
Operation Halcon ended in part because U.S. officials could not get the Mexican government to give U.S. personnel immunity in case of an accident in Mexico.
Associated Press writer Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.