Operation ‘Lowrider’ Sends US Manned Aircraft Into Mexico To Track Drug Cartels

Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales
The cartel leader was wanted for crimes which included the slaughter of some 260 migrants. Associated Press


Under the direction of the Pentagon, American pilots are flying into Mexican airspace to help its authorities track and nab drug cartel leaders in the north of the country.  In 2011, the project was contracted to private defense company Sierra Nevada Corporation without a bidding process.  Since then Operation Lowrider, otherwise known as the Northern Command Aerial Sensor Platform, has sent in two manned aircraft equipped with technology used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan to spy on suspected cartel members.  Mexican authorities have captured 10 cartel bosses since the program began, though it is unclear what role Lowrider has played in those apprehensions.

The operation began in the spring of 2011, according to vocativ, after two discoveries of mass graves in northern Mexico thought to be the work of drug cartels operating there.  In one, 183 corpses were uncovered; in another some hundreds of miles west, over 200 bodies were found.  In response, the Pentagon decided to launch Lowrider, awarding an $18 million contract to Sierra Nevada Corporation only months later in which the firm would provide the planes (and surveillance equipment built into them) and the flight crews which would take them into Mexican airspace.  When one Republican congressman complained in a letter to the Pentagon about the lack of a bidding process between defense contractors, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton wrote back that the urgency of the situation justified it, and called the mission "classified and extremely sensitive".  El Universal notes that a 2011 New York Times report on an agreement between US President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón which saw US drone aircrafts flying into Mexican territory did not mention Operation Lowrider.

The future of the program, however, could be in question.  The administration of current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has indicated it will focus less on capturing kingpins than the former administration, and upon entering office in December 2012, Peña Nieto has tried to put space between Mexican and US intelligence agencies, which under his predecessor shared an unprecedented amount of sensitive information.  His tenure in office has seen the capture of two high-level drug cartel leaders, including one - Zeta leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, or "Z-40" - whose location was thought to be ascertained with the help of US drug law enforcement.  But it's unclear if Peña Nieto will continue to allow the flights over Mexican territory to go on

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David Iaconangelo is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.  Formerly editor of ZafraLit, a blog of new short fiction from Cuba.  He has lived in and reported from various Latin American countries.