An investigation by the Wall Street Journal has revealed that United States Marshals are secretly disguising themselves as Mexican Marines to take part in armed raids against drug suspects in Mexico — a move that not only puts the lives of U.S. personnel at risk but also shows the country’s growing presence in combating Mexico’s drug cartels on its southern neighbor’s turf.
In the past both countries have described the U.S. role in the drug war as a supporting one only, but people familiar with the work have told the newspaper that the U.S. Marshals service sends a handful of specialists into Mexico, who then put on local uniforms and weapons to hide their role hunting suspects — some of whom are not even wanted in the U.S.
These missions are approved only by senior U.S. Marshals executives and Mexican Marines leaders and it is not clear, according to the Journal story, who else in either government may have given authorization for the Marshall Service visit.
When questioned about the incidents, the Marshals Service referred the newspaper to the Justice Department, who issued this response through a spokesperson: “The U.S. Marshals have an important—and sometimes dangerous—mission of capturing fugitives and facilitating extraditions in the United States and around the world.”
The Mexican embassy in Washington D.C. also denied that any U.S. military or law enforcement personnel were operating within the country’s military ranks to combat drug traffickers.
"Members of foreign law enforcement agencies or foreign military, including those from the U.S., are not authorized to carry weapons within the Mexican territory, and none of them are authorized either to participate in any raids or other armed law enforcement operations," said an embassy spokesman, Ariel Moutsatsos-Morales.
These new missions signify a new hazard for U.S. personnel operating in the country. In July, Mexican Marines and a number of U.S. Marshals in Mexican Marine garb were fired upon by drug traffickers while walking through a field in Sinaloa state – home to captured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel.
In the ensuing melee, one American was shot and wounded and more than a half-dozen suspected cartel soldiers were killed. It is unclear if the U.S. Marshals shot anyone.
U.S. law-enforcement agents working overseas are generally prohibited by local laws from carrying weapons, and their arrest powers carry no weight outside the U.S. The State Department has also declined to discuss law-enforcement cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.