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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Agent's death may mean increased security for U.S. role in Mexico drug war

The fatal shooting of a U.S. federal agent is not expected to fundamentally alter the U.S.-Mexican alliance, but the expanding corps of U.S. personnel helping Mexico's drug war may face new measures.

February 17, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata, seen here in an undated photograph, died Tuesday when gunmen in the northern Mexican state of San Luis Potosi attacked the vehicle Zapata and another agent were traveling in. The second agent, who wasn't identified, was shot and was in stable condition, according to statements from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata,… (Immigration and Customs…)

Reporting from Mexico City — The fatal shooting of a U.S. federal agent in Mexico may lead to new security measures for the expanding corps of American personnel participating ever more deeply in Mexico's drug war, but it is not expected to fundamentally alter the U.S.-Mexican alliance, officials said Wednesday.

Hit men thought to be with the Zetas drug gang or with the Gulf cartel killed the agent, Jaime Zapata, and wounded a second agent Tuesday afternoon after bringing their armored vehicle to a stop on a federal highway in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

"What we are seeing is organized crime fighting for territory … with repercussions we had not experienced before," San Luis Potosi Gov. Fernando Toranzo said Wednesday, blaming drug traffickers for the attack.

As new details of the incident emerged, the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Justice formed a joint task force headed by the FBI that will work with Mexican authorities to track down suspects.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano telephoned her Mexican counterpart, Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake Mora, to state that violence against U.S. personnel "will not be tolerated."

Zapata, of Brownsville, Texas, and the second agent, Victor Avila, worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and were on temporary duty attached to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

The agents had traveled in a dark, tinted-window SUV with U.S. government plates from Mexico City into San Luis Potosi state to pick up equipment from agents working out of the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, ICE sources said. They were headed back to Mexico City when confronted.

Initially, U.S. and Mexican authorities said the pair had stopped at a fake checkpoint staged by the gunmen. However, the head of a U.S. congressional security subcommittee, briefed by senior ICE officials, said the agents were chased by their attackers and run off the road.

"When the agents identified themselves as American diplomats, the cartel members responded by opening fire on the officers," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement.

Regardless of how the vehicle was stopped, the gunmen appeared to have fired AK-47 assault rifles into the open windows of the vehicle, wounding Avila and killing Zapata. Avila was evacuated to a U.S. hospital and released Wednesday.

Among unanswered questions is why the agents were traveling in such a conspicuous vehicle, a type known to be coveted by gangsters across Mexico, and without extra security in an area of surging drug violence. U.S. law enforcement agents are not allowed to carry weapons in Mexico.

It also remained unclear, despite McCaul's account, whether the assailants knew they were pursuing U.S. federal agents or merely were after the car.

"It was their big shiny car more than anything," a U.S. federal law enforcement official said. But, he said, because the gunfire damage to the car was not scattershot, "that's what makes us lean to this being a targeted killing, that they knew they were U.S. federal agents," at least once the vehicle stopped.

Other law enforcement officials said the vehicle should have been considered relatively safe because it was armored.

Conventional wisdom holds that traffickers, wanting to avoid the scrutiny of the U.S. government, would not deliberately target U.S. officials. Some sources suggested that the gangsters may have assumed they were pursuing members of a rival cartel.

It was the highest-profile slaying of a U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico since Enrique Camarena, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1985. That incident cast a deep pall over relations between Washington and Mexico City amid recrimination and suspicion.

Not only are the circumstances of Zapata's death far different, so is the relationship between the two countries. The United States has designated $1.4 billion in aid over a three-year period for Mexico's war against drug cartels, and the role of U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and military officials is growing steadily.

Jay Carney, spokesman for President Obama, said Wednesday that the Zapata killing would not have a negative effect on bilateral relations.

"We are very supportive of the Mexican government," Carney said at a White House briefing.

wilkinson@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

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