For 26 years, U.S. Southern Command has had a Special Forces component, Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), headed by a general and based in Florida. It coordinates the activities of Special Operations Forces (elite “warrior-diplomats” like Army Rangers and Green Berets, or Navy SEALs and Special Boat Units) in Southcom’s area of operations, which includes all of Latin America except Mexico, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.
Mexico falls under the purview of the U.S. Northern Command (Northcom, founded in 2002), which did not have a formal Special Forces component — until now, apparently. Special Operations Command North was stood up on December 31, and its principal focus for now is to deepen training of elite military units in Mexico.
Based at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, Special Operations Command-North will build on a commando program that has brought Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement officials to study U.S. counterterrorist operations, to show them how special operations troops built an interagency network to target al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers.
The special operations team within Northcom will be turned into a new headquarters, led by a general instead of a colonel. It was established in a Dec. 31 memo signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That move gives the group more autonomy and the number of people could eventually quintuple from 30 to 150, meaning the headquarters could expand its training missions with the Mexicans, even though no new money is being assigned to the mission.
This news brings up three points (not including persistent concerns about the human rights record of SOCNORTH’s Mexican military partners):
1. It signals a closer relationship with Mexico’s Defense Department (SEDENA) under the new leadership that came in with President Enrique Peña Nieto. SEDENA incorporates Mexico’s Army and Air Force, which during the presidency of Felipe Calderón were noticeably less enthusiastic than Mexico’s Navy (SEMAR) about cooperating with U.S. military counterparts. “Historically, suspicion of the United States has been a prime driver of a military bureaucratic culture that has kept SEDENA closed to us,” noted a leaked 2010 State Department cable. It is notable that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta signed the order establishing SOCNORTH only a month after Peña Nieto assumed office, along with a new SEDENA secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos.
2. It appears that one of SOCNORTH’s first tasks is helping the Peña Nieto government to stand up a new intelligence unit within the Interior Ministry. “The special operations program has already helped Mexican officials set up their own intelligence center in Mexico City to target criminal networks, patterned after similar centers in war zones built to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the AP story reports. That unit, the National Intelligence Center or CNI, will “concentrate in one entity, like the fusion centers or offices that we have in the United States, all intelligence information that is gathered by the Army, the Navy, CISEN [the existing civilian intelligence agency], the PGR [attorney-general’s office] and all other federal and even state agencies involved in the fight against narcotrafficking,” a U.S. consultant source told Mexico’s Proceso magazine.
3. This is an emblematic indication that the Obama administration’s “light footprint” strategy is moving ahead. The administration is unlikely to commit to any large, costly new “Mérida Initiative”-style programs in Mexico. Budget realities alone determine that. But as we noted last week, as Special Forces units leave Afghanistan ahead of the 2014 drawdown, there will be many more of them available for training and other missions in Latin America. The pace of Special Forces deployments — low-profile, under the radar, mostly for training, but also serving other purposes, like intelligence-gathering — is very likely beginning to pick up throughout the hemisphere. As that happens, the establishment of SOCNORTH to guide work with Mexico is an important milestone.