Openly attacking the cartels just made the violence worse. But it's not clear that institution-building has accomplished much, either.
On August 24, plainclothes Mexican federal police opened fire on an SUV that was carrying two CIA agents and their Mexican interpreter, who were likely on their way to a site where U.S. personnel train Mexican security forces. The car, which had diplomatic plates, was riddled with 150 bullets, suggesting that this was something more than a case of mistaken identity, or a friendly-fire incident.
The shooting remains every bit as mysterious more than a month later. It might have been a straightforward case of incompetence -- the Mexican agents might have simply been incapable of distinguishing between a car belonging to a criminal organization and one belonging to a foreign government, even on a road where official vehicles were apparently common. Just as troubling is the possibility that Mexican agents working at the behest of a drug cartel were attempting to undermine U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. It is possible, according to Diana Negroponte of the Brookings Institute, that the shooting resulted from a rivalry between the U.S.-trained Mexican military and segments of the federal police that are still under the sway of one of the country's numerous armed drug-trafficking organizations. "Trust is still so weak that the federal police cannot trust members of the Mexican armed forces being trained by [U.S.] elements," she says. If this is the case, then U.S. agents were caught in the middle of a drug-fueled rivalry between different sections of the Mexican security services -- the same agencies that the U.S. and Mexican governments have been trying to train and reform, thanks to a recent shift in U.S. policy.