An overhaul of a U.S. military program aimed at helping Mexican security forces fight the war on drug cartels is raising concerns that U.S. training could fuel human rights abuses -- and even be exploited by the cartels themselves.
But officials with the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), which has trained Mexican military officials in anti-insurgent and intelligence-gathering techniques for the past decade, say not to worry.
The concerns, and the assurances, come after outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta set up a new special operations headquarters to train Mexican forces. The team will reportedly help Mexico track drug cartels much like U.S. teams have tracked Al Qaeda. It will still be run under the umbrella of USNORTHCOM.
Capt. Jeff Davis of USNORTHCOM, in an interview with FoxNews.com, played down the significance of the new designation -- saying the mission will remain the same as it has and will not involve U.S. Special Operations missions in Mexico's war on drugs.
"There are no military missions -- we do professional military exchanges where we look over their shoulders and they look over ours," Davis said. "It's a matter of security cooperation."
While the model ensures Mexican sovereignty, the Associated Press has reported that the type of training on the horizon may be geared toward using intelligence to more effectively hunt some of the most elusive cartel bosses such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman -- head of the Sinaloa Cartel -- using techniques similar to those employed by the U.S. to locate Usama bin Laden and other terrorists.
According to John Cornelio, spokesman for USNORTHCOM, by early 2014 the new designation for the group responsible for training the Mexican military will be called U.S. Special Operations Command North (SOCNORTH).
"We believe it is in the best interest of American security to assist the Mexicans which only makes us safer," Davis said. "We teach them how to do business."
It is this "business" model, though, that concerns human rights advocates.
Between 2003 and 2006, there were 691 human rights complaints filed against the Mexican military. That number jumped exponentially, according to Human Rights Watch, to 7,350 between 2007 and 2012 -- incidentally, when the USNORTHCOM training gained traction. Of those cases, only 5,000 were taken seriously enough by the Mexico military, resulting in 38 convictions.
Davis said the current program does not resemble in any way the School of the Americas program that trained South American military officials connected to thousands of murders and disappearances of people in South America in the 1980s and 1990s.
The most recent report by Human Rights Watch, released Jan. 31, said human rights violations at the hands of the Mexican military are on the rise with virtually no criminal consequences.
"What the U.S. needs to do is help Mexico with its policing and court system," said Daniel Wilkinson, of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. must press Mexico to improve human rights violations of their military and police."
The other concern associated with U.S. training of the Mexican military is that the specialized training could ostensibly be used by the cartels. It's happened before. In the mid 1990s, a group of U.S.-trained Mexican Special Forces troops deserted to join the Gulf Cartel to apply their sophisticated surveillance, security and assassination skills.
The Los Zetas, which has since left the Gulf Cartel, is now the most vicious cartel in Mexico.
Davis said efforts are being made to exhaustively vet training candidates to prevent a recurrence of this.
A spokesman for the Department of Defense also said every effort is made to prevent human rights violations subsequent to American training.
"The Department of Defense incorporates human rights principles into its cooperation activities with the military services of all partner nations," said the official, who declined to be identified. "This is a fundamental principle of U.S. government assistance, in Mexico and around the world."
The source went on to say that military cooperation activities with the Mexican military comply with applicable international law and the laws of the United States. "DoD will always work to the greatest extent possible to prevent human rights violations," the source said.
A provision in U.S. law called the Leahy Provision prohibits military aid to countries with human rights violations. In 2010, the State Department requested Congress withhold $26 million of a planned $175 million payment due Mexico as part of the Merida Plan -- a $1.4 billion aid and training package to Mexico -- amid concerns over rights violations. The funds, though, were ultimately released.
Formed in 2002 to bolster homeland security, USNORTHCOM for years has cooperated with neighbor governments against Transnational Criminal Organizations like the cartels.
At a Naval seminar in Mexico in 2011, USNORTHCOM Commander Adm. James Winnefeld said the U.S., Mexico and Canada share a common enemy in Mexico's criminal gangs.
"While I always want to do more to help, we in USNORTHCOM are just a supporting player in a much larger interagency law enforcement effort," Winnefeld said. "The first and foremost important principle we observe in this struggle is respect for Mexican sovereignty."