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Members of the federal strike force deployed in Portland, courtesy of Doug Brown of the ACLU of Oregon.

Militarized Federal Troops in U.S. Cities Sent by Trump Administration Deploy Private Drug-War Contractors, Flown from Mexico Border

Flight records, a former chief-of-staff of Homeland Security and a former DEA agent are among sources that confirm their origin

President Donald Trump’s deployment of U.S. military troops on June 1 against peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., included his announcement that he would send U.S. Armed Forces into American cities to, he said, “dominate the streets.” In the days that followed, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top Pentagon officials publicly rebuked the president and rejected his plan.

The heavily-armed, camouflaged and undercover SWAT-like forces with cloaked identities that have appeared recently in Portland, Oregon, and other U.S. cities have used military tactics against peaceful protesters, but they are not members of the Armed Forces. They have refused daily requests by local officials and news media reporters to identify their agency or origin, as they have unleashed a wave of violent attacks to provoke largely peaceful protesters. Their presence has itself provoked larger and more confrontational protests than those they were purportedly sent to control.

According to public documents, flight plans and former federal law enforcement officials, the mysterious militarized forces include Federal Protective Service (FPS) agents tapped from private security companies that provide the agency with thousands of private contractors normally employed to protect federal buildings. Those private security companies include international operators such as Blackwater corporate descendent Triple Canopy. Within their ranks are a hodge-podge of previously foreign-deployed mercenary soldiers in U.S. drug war operations in Mexico and Latin America, as well as private contractors that are part of the controversial Homeland Security tactics used along the U.S.-Mexico border that have recently converted private hotels to imprison detained undocumented immigrant children.

“This is too similar to things that happened before [in the Iran/Contra era],” says Baruch Vega, a former CIA asset with decades of experience working in Latin America. “It sounds like a carbon copy. Nothing has changed.”

One facet of the Reagan-era Iran/Contra scandal involved the use of CIA resources and private contractors to run drugs in order to raise money to fund the purchase of arms for the Contra rebels who were seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Tracking the Mercenary Flights

The federal strike force assembled by Attorney General William Barr at the command of President Donald Trump that has been violently confronting protesters in Portland over the past few weeks is utilizing private contractors from companies that have a history of providing mercenaries for the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the drug war in Latin America. These federal strike-force teams, spearheaded within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by FPS, also have made their presence known in Seattle recently.

The federal law enforcers have been called into action by Trump and Barr to engage protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. They have been most visible in Portland so far, where the confrontations with protesters have been occurring near a federal courthouse.

Many of these law enforcers are not sworn federal agents. Rather, a number of them are private contractors employed by FPS, which spreads around about a $1 billion a year to a host of private security firms nationwide.

In fact, there are some 13,000 security guards nationwide employed by FPS to protect federal property — all via contracts with dozens of private security firms. Their numbers can be expanded as needed through existing and future contracts. Among the responsibilities of these contract guards is to assist federal law enforcers with crowd control at federal properties as needed. [See prior story.]

“FPS is an agency that exists to protect federal infrastructure and buildings,” says Noah Kroloff, who served as chief-of-staff of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the Obama administration. “Its workforce is more than 90% contractors [with the balance being federal employees, including some sworn federal law-enforcement agents.]

“I am 100 percent certain that there are contractors that are protecting the federal buildings in these cities and states,” says Kroloff, now a principal and the co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based security-consulting firm GSIS. “And I think it’s safe to assume that if they are deployed at federal buildings, then they are serving in some capacity in crowd control — at a minimum around the perimeter of the buildings. They do certainly have the authority when a federal building is threatened to respond.”

Kroloff adds, however, that if those FPS contractors are deployed for crowd control along with sworn FPS federal agents in blended operations, it “would be impossible to distinguish,” one from the other.

“What is really unusual is deploying contractors without the request of state and local officials [in Portland and other targeted cities],” Kroloff says. “It’s very concerning and a potential risk to public safety.”

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A Customs and Border Protection Orion surveillance aircraft.

In Seattle and Portland, where this federal strike force has been deployed recently, elements of the teams arrived by air. Tracking those flights reveals that they departed from South Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border, where there is already a strong private-contractor presence working hand-in-glove with DHS agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Two U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Lockheed P3B Orion aircraft, a four-engine turboprop plane used for maritime surveillance, landed at Boeing Field in Seattle on July 23, flight-tracking platform FlightAware shows. About 10 to 15 men in plain clothes disembarked from each CPB aircraft, bringing with them an array of baggage, according to the Stranger, a Seattle newspaper.

National media reported the same day that the Trump administration was sending federal agents, including CBP officers, to Seattle to deal with protesters as part of a planned national rollout of what has been described by some observers as “secret police” units — because of their military-style uniforms, cloaked identities and the confrontational crowd-control measures they employ.

The camo-clad “special response teams” deployed on the mission are part of an operation involving multiple DHS agencies, including CPB, FPS and ICE. They descended on Portland and Seattle in recent days without invitations from or coordinating with local and state elected leaders.

The operation is being overseen by DHS’ little-known FPS agency.

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Both of the CBP Orion aircraft that landed in Seattle flew out of McAllen, Texas, and only days earlier had been tracked by FlightAware to various locations off the coast of Mexico. The CBP-operated Orion aircraft, which have a range exceeding 5,500 miles, provide surveillance support for U.S. anti-narcotics operations, flying missions from their home base at Naval Air Station-Corpus Christi in South Texas to locations in Latin America as far away as Ecuador.

On July 14, a little more than a week prior to CPB aircraft landing in Seattle, another CBP Orion aircraft landed in Portland via Corpus Christi, FlightAware records show. Since that time, Portland has been wracked by confrontations between protestors and Trump’s federal forces, which were deployed in early July to the city, many concealed in camouflage and tactical gear, without name tags or badges and sporting only opaque shoulder patches in most cases.

Now, in the final week of July, news reports are telling us that the federal strike force in Seattle has left town with a whimper, while DHS officials are in negotiations with the governor of Oregon over the fate of the federal force currently in that city and are expected to withdraw soon. It is not known where these federal forces will be deployed next.

On another front, seemingly as part of a separate wing of the same operation, some 200 federal law enforcers have already been “surged” into Kansas City, Missouri, allegedly to fight violent crime — with similar surges announced for Chicago and Albuquerque on July 22. A new slate of Democrat-led cities was added to the list on July 29, including Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.

This latest federal law-enforcement surge, however, involves Department of Justice (DOJ) law enforcers, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, FBI, DEA and the ATF, according to a DOJ press release. Regardless, if those operations are based out of federal buildings, which is likely to be the case, FPS private contractors will still be present, at least on federal property.

In addition, recent reports in the Chicago Tribune indicate that DHS also will be involved in the surge operations in the Windy City, with some 150 DHS law enforcers slated to be sent to Chicago. All of this, the “’violent-crime” initiative as well as the federal response to protestors in Portland and Seattle, falls under the umbrella of an extension of federal power on the streets of America dubbed by the Trump administration as “Operation Legend” (DOJ) and “Operation Diligent Valor” (DHS).

Who are these secret federal law enforcers that are invading U.S. cities against the wishes of local and state leaders, and why are they going to such great lengths to conceal their identities and cloud their missions, even as they confront protestors in Portland with pepper spray, tear gas, flash-bang grenades and shock-and-awe force?

“What it is, is they are bringing in folks who are contractors from the drug war in Mexico,” says former DEA agent Cele Castillo, who adds that he regularly sees the CBP planes flying overhead from his home in McAllen. “There’s lots of them in the McAllen right now — contractors.”

The Disappeared

Cele Castillo played a key role in exposing the U.S. government’s role in supporting narco-trafficking as part of the Iran/Contra scandal in the 1980s. He is now retired and lives in the McAllen area, located in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley near the Mexico border.

Castillo, while a DEA agent in Central America in the 1980s during the Reagan/Bush administration, uncovered evidence that the CIA and the White House National Security Council, through San Antonio, Texas, native and national counter-terrorism coordinator Lt. Col. Oliver North and other CIA assets and contractors, were carrying out illegal operations at two hangars at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador. Those airport hangars, Castillo contends, served as weapons and narcotics transshipment centers for funding and arming the U.S.-backed Contra counter-insurgency against the government of Nicaragua.

While working undercover anti-narcotics missions in Central America and elsewhere over his career, Castillo says he frequently encountered private contractors and mercenaries, so he is quite familiar with how they operate. He says he’s convinced that the “crowd control” forces arrayed against protesters in Portland and beyond are not your typical rent-a-cops.

Castillo says it’s not a coincidence that the CBP Orion aircraft flights to Seattle departed from McAllen.

“These contractors work in Mexico but are stationed in McAllen,” he says. “Many are former agents or special ops. There’s a hotel here that’s full of these contractors. And I see them eating at restaurants in the area, and I know they’re contractors.”

McAllen also is home to CPB operations as well as contractors who assist DHS with transporting and deporting undocumented immigrants. Castillo says, however, that the contractors in McAllen and those deployed against protesters in U.S. cities are not mutually exclusive, adding that they now have get-out-of-jail-free cards in Trump’s America.

“Nobody is going to challenge them because they have a green light from Trump,” Castillo says. “They can do what they want, and they’re doing it.”

He points to a recent incident in McAllen involving a private contractor called MVM Inc., which has been implicated in detaining children — unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. without parents — at a McAllen hotel in recent months.

An investigation by the Associated Press found children were detained 123 times at the McAllen hotel over the past few months, some or all with the assistance of MVM contractors, prior to being expelled from the country absent court hearings and due process under a recent Trump emergency order that uses the coronavirus pandemic as a pre-text for the deportations. Some of the children have been returned to life-threatening situations in their home countries. The operator of the McAllen hotel where the children were being detained, Castle Hospitality, declined to reveal how many rooms had been booked by MVM, or the DHS agency it works for, ICE, the news service reports.

DHS is now the target of a lawsuit over the practice, filed by the ACLU of Texas and other legal groups, including the Texas Civil Rights Project. A video was recently posted on Twitter that shows an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project being assaulted by three men after entering the hotel where he suspected children were of being detained by DHS or its contractor. The men refused to identify themselves, even after being asked if they were law enforcement officials.

“Our attorney was aggressively rejected from trying to offer help to immigrant children illegally detained at a Hampton Inn in McAllen, TX,” the Twitter posts states. “He and another of our staff [the person filming the incident] were violently shoved into the hotel elevator and were told they could not offer help.”

ICE later confirmed that the men who forcibly ejected the representatives of the Texas Civil Rights Project from the hotel did, in fact, work for the agency’s contractor, MVM.

Borderline Security

MVM is one of the private firms that also supplies security personnel to federal buildings through contracts with FPS — the same agency now overseeing the strike forces confronting U.S. citizens participating in civil rights protests. MVM also has a long history of supplying contractors and mercenaries to U.S. war efforts overseas. The company’s LinkedIn page states that it “currently employs over 2,500 personnel and [has] successfully operated in all 50 states and over 70 countries around the world.”

A 2007 United Nations report offers the following insight into MVM’s operations:

“Since mid-2005, intermediary companies have been selecting Peruvians for two American private security companies, Triple Canopy [also an FPS contractor] and MVM Inc., which were tasked with recruiting, training and sending them to the armed conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. The exact number of Peruvians hired over approximately a year and a half is not known.

“Figures collated from various sources indicated that there were around 1,100 Peruvians in Iraq: 850 in Baghdad and 300 in Basra. MVM Inc. hired Peruvians for Afghanistan and Triple Canopy for Iraq.”

A 2018 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) exposed a lucrative contract worth nearly $200 million that ICE inked with MVM while the company was being investigated for “housing immigrant children in vacant office buildings.”

The CIR report points out that MVM was started by three former special agents with the U.S. Secret Service — now part of DHS — in the 1970s, adding that the company has supplied guards to “CIA facilities in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay Migrant Operations Center.” In addition, CIR reported that one of the company’s vice presidents previously worked for the CIA and also served as the former acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service — which also is participating in the federal strike force enabled by Trump and Attorney General William Barr.

“If they [the Trump administration] can disappear people on the border, and in Portland, they can disappear you,” warns Ivy Le, press manager for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Officials with MVM did not respond to a request for comment. FPS spokesperson Robert Sperling responded previously to questions about the role FPS contract guards are playing in controlling crowds at recent protests by saying simply: “The Federal Protective Service protective security officers are manning their posts and do not have authority or jurisdiction beyond federal property.”

Kroloff points out that even if FPS private contractors were not involved as they are, just deploying large numbers of sworn DHS or DOJ federal agents to U.S. cities for an extended period outside of their primary missions — for purposes like crowd control or street-crime investigations typically handled by local police — creates potentially grave dangers for the nation.

That’s because we exist in a world of finite resources and multiple ongoing, asymmetric threats, which means our national leadership has a responsibility to make wise choices in deploying scarce law enforcement resources to best ensure the security of its citizens.

“You have a certain number of agents, and you have a certain amount of dollars, and you have a certain amount of statutory obligations against which you were executing,” Kroloff explains. “So, if you’re an agent investigating cybercrimes, or transnational crimes, or the shipment and movement of illicit goods, like weapons of mass destruction or other contraband, and you are pulled away from your primary mission for crowd control, then it’s just a matter of fact that you are making the country less safe.”

Deploying federal law enforcement resources to multiple U.S. cities as a crowd-control force or as neighborhood street-crime sleuths, as Trump claims he is doing, will require a large redeployment of valuable federal law-enforcement personnel. As a result, Kroloff adds, “You either have to hire up contractors and deploy contractors, or you have to diminish your capacity for the other missions that you’re statutorily obligated to execute on, and you are fundamentally abrogating the responsibility of the agency by making those redeployments.”

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