Exclusive: Inside the Pentagon’s top Secret spy Plane Operation Against Mexican Drug Cartels
It was one of the most gruesome periods of Mexico’s drug war. In the spring of 2011, Mexican authorities discovered a series of mass graves holding a total of 183 corpses near the southwest Texas border. The victims had been killed—some after rape and torture—by one of the country’s most brutal drug gangs. Weeks later, investigators exhumed more than 200 additional bodies buried hundreds of miles west.
As the death count climbed, the Pentagon decided to launch an unprecedented intelligence operation. Vocativ has learned that the U.S. military began a series of surveillance missions into Mexican airspace, using techniques and equipment refined in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal: to track the cartels and their kingpins using aircraft with live pilots and crews, not just remotely controlled drones. The operation was initially code-named Lowrider, but officially known as the Northern Command Aerial Sensor Platform. And like so many military enterprises since 9/11, the contract was privatized: Without a bidding process, the government farmed it out to a large private defense company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, to provide the planes, pilots and crews for the classified missions.
For years, in response to the mounting violence, the U.S. and Mexican governments have been secretly sharing intelligence on drug traffickers. But the previously unreported spy-plane operation underscores how deeply involved the U.S. military has become in the war against the cartels, even as the general public has remained largely unaware of the extent of its operations. In private, because of the classified nature of the program, insiders raise a number of questions, not just about the effectiveness of the missions, but also about the way a secret intelligence contract was awarded, and about the potential risks to American flight crews.
According to a source involved in the surveillance program, the manned spy planes take off from Texas and cross the border, flying deep into Mexico to conduct “pattern of life” reconnaissance missions. It’s a technique the U.S. military has used in the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. The pilots quietly watch from the air and learn the schedules and itineraries of America’s adversaries. Sources say this program employs just two aircraft, which are outfitted with sophisticated electronic-intercept technology and cameras capable of tracking a suspect from 6 miles away.
Drones (“unmanned aerial vehicles,” the military prefers to call them) can be useful for this sort of work, but they aren’t interchangeable with piloted planes. It may be relatively easy to fly drones out of a military field in Yemen or Afghanistan, but it’s far more difficult—if not impossible—to steer clear of civil aviation in more populated areas. Live humans can also notice things that the best remote-controlled cameras will never catch.
Yet manned flights can put pilots and crews in danger, and given the cartels’ military-grade weaponry, critics particularly worry about one of the planes, which uses a single engine. The program’s original contract, according to individuals who were involved, called for only twin-engine planes—and with good reason. If one engine fails, the other can still fly everyone home safely. With a single-engine plane, there is no backup. Any sort of engine failure could result in a crash landing somewhere in Mexico.
The fear is not merely hypothetical. In two separate incidents over the span of a month and a half in 2003, single-engine American surveillance planes on contract to the U.S. military crashed in Colombia. In the first incident, the engine failed and the plane was forced to crash-land. Marxist guerrillas killed the American pilot and a Colombian soldier aboard before taking the three U.S. crewmen hostage. Their captivity continued for more than five years until they were rescued. In the second crash, everyone died.
Given that history, it’s understandable that some acquainted with the Lowrider program aren’t entirely comfortable with its risks. “Especially after the lessons learned in Colombia, seems like they are doing the same thing,” says one source familiar with the Mexican operation. Another source who is also familiar with the program disagrees, saying despite initial concerns, the single-engine aircraft has worked well in this case.
An estimated 60,000 or more people have been killed since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006. As the carnage ensued, the cartels made war not only against the government, but also against one another, setting in motion a cycle of violent turf wars and revenge killings. At times, enforcers for the cartels flaunted their brutality, killing police, torturing or beheading competitors, and occasionally posting the bloody evidence online.
For all the harrowing violence, the U.S. military overflights could be a touchy issue in Mexico, where the country’s sovereignty is never taken for granted. Most people in the United States may forget the two countries’ troubled past, but Mexicans know all too well how the southwestern U.S.—from Texas to California—used to be theirs. “Mexico’s military doctrine has posited that their number one threat is the United States,” says Adam Isaacson, who follows security developments in the Western Hemisphere as a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “And it’s been that way since 1848.” On hearing about the Northern Command program, he says: “Traditionally, this would be a hypersensitive thing for the Mexicans.” A spokesman at the Mexican Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the program.
The U.S. military says that any operations in Mexico are conducted with the Mexican government’s invitation. But the Americans in the planes have no direct communications with Mexican officials. Any intelligence they collect is transmitted first to the U.S. military, which then provides Mexican authorities with whatever information they may need to conduct raids.
Some insiders say that efforts to target the cartels with the manned surveillance program have been frustrating. According to one source, the Americans have sometimes suspected that cartel figures were given advance warning of impending raids. Surveillance crews would watch helplessly as a kingpin they had monitored for days would suddenly leave the scene just before a raid. “It seems like they were finding out ahead of time,” the source says. “It was consistently like that.”
Another source familiar with the program says it has posted some real successes, not just nice tries. It’s unclear exactly when its intelligence played a role, but at least 10 cartel bosses have been caught or killed by Mexican forces since Lowrider began. Earlier this month, authorities in Mexico bagged Mario Ramirez Treviño, a top leader of the Gulf cartel. And July brought perhaps the biggest triumph yet, the capture of alleged Zeta cartel leader Miguel Angel Treviño—a man who was reportedly fond of incinerating his victims in oil drums and dissolving them in acid. The Mexican marines who grabbed him seemed to have superb intelligence about his movements. There have been reports that the intel American came from the U.S. though it remains to be seen if the Northern Command operation was involved.
The secret nature of the Lowrider program makes its rough outlines difficult to trace. But one document obtained by Vocativ indicates that it began with a 2011 directive from the Pentagon’s Northern Command to the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group—a secretive U.S. Air Force office also known as Big Safari. That summer, Big Safari awarded an $18 million contract to Sierra Nevada Corporation for the Northern Command Aerial Sensor Platform. The company would provide the planes, integrated with the intelligence-gathering equipment, and the crews.
The privately owned company, based in Sparks, Nevada, and run by the husband-and-wife team of Fatih and Eren Ozmen, is little known outside defense-contracting circles, but it wields considerable influence both in the military-intelligence trade and on Capitol Hill. For years, Sierra Nevada has handled high-tech classified programs, integrating cameras for use on planes and drones deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The company is also working to develop a potential scaled-down space shuttle known as Dream Chaser for NASA.) A spokeswoman for Sierra Nevada has not returned Vocativ’s phone calls and emails.
Last year Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania wrote to the Pentagon raising concerns about the military’s decision to award the contract to Sierra Nevada without putting it out for competitive bidding, as the law usually requires. Shuster didn’t specifically mention Mexico or refer to the Lowrider program by name, but his letter, obtained by Vocativ, alludes to an aircraft “currently operating in North America providing aerial surveillance and signals intelligence collection in support of Northern Command.” In response to Shuster’s missive, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton wrote back that there had been “urgent National Security requirements” to justify the contract award. “This mission is classified and extremely sensitive,” he wrote, adding his assurance that Sierra Nevada “has a proven track record.” Shuster’s office declined to comment on the exchange, and a Pentagon spokesman would not comment specifically on the Lowrider program.
To carry out the mission, insiders say that Sierra Nevada hired the Colorado-headquartered subcontractor PGI Aviation to provide pilots and crews for the program. Although PGI officials declined to comment about the contract or the operation, the company’s website lists this among PGI’s credits: Northern Command Aerial Sensor Platform pilots and operators.
More than two years after Lowrider began, the program’s future is an open question. Insiders tell Vocativ that the Sierra Nevada contract is scheduled to expire in September. Meanwhile, Enrique Peña Nieto, who took over from the staunchly anti-cartel Calderón as president last December, has advocated a more conciliatory approach to the drug war. Early this month a Mexican court ordered the release of Rafael Caro Quintero, the old-time cartel boss responsible for the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. Amid the ensuing outcry, Mexican authorities promised they would try to put him back behind bars, but so far they’ve had no success.