U.S. Agent's Killing Hints at Drug-War Tensions

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El Pulso / Reuters

Mexican federal police stand beside the car of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who were believed to have been attacked by drug-gang gunmen

The dreaded phone call came in at the U.S. embassy during a baking-hot Mexico City afternoon on Feb. 15. Special agent Victor Avila reported that he and his partner were under attack after a dozen gunmen surrounded them on a central Mexican highway; both agents had taken hits, and Avila was watching scores of other shells bounce off their armor-plated Suburban. It was this cry for help that saved Avila's life. American officials contacted their drug-war allies in the Mexican federal police, who swept the area, making the gunmen flee, and airlifted the agents to a hospital. Avila survived after two bullets were removed from his legs. But his colleague Jaime Zapata died from his wounds and is due to be buried with honors Tuesday in his native Brownsville, Texas — both Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are expected to attend the funeral.

President Obama personally called Zapata's family to offer his condolences, which underscored the grim milestone. Zapata's killing marks the first murder of an American agent in the line of duty in Mexico's drug war, which has raged relentlessly since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and declared an unprecedented attack on cartels. As such, it adds extra pressure to the already strained U.S.-Mexico drug-war alliance.

Publicly, the Calderón and Obama administrations have continued to paint a rosy picture of the U.S. and Mexico marching side by side to defeat the common adversary of drug cartels. But as revealed in WikiLeaks cables and offhand comments by officials on both sides of the border, tensions are growing. U.S. officials complain that they cannot completely rely on Mexico's institutions — and this concern is exacerbated when their lives are on the line. For their part, Mexicans protest that they suffer from failed American policies on drugs and guns. The Obama Administration's recent refusal to fast-track new reporting requirements for assault-weapon sales along the Mexican border only added to their frustration.

The Mexican complaint that they have unfairly borne the brunt of the war is shown in cruel numbers. In the four years of conflict, gangsters have killed more than 2,000 officers of Mexico's security forces, including members of its military, federal and local police. As tragic as it is, the single death of an American agent pales in comparison. Politicians of various stripes have commented that Mexico supplies the dead while the U.S. supplies the dollars. And it is not even that much money. Obama's proposed drug-war aid in the 2012 budget was lower than expected at $334 million — compared with Mexico's own federal security budget of some $14 billion per year. Meanwhile, American drug users provide the cartels with an estimated $30 billion in revenues.

However, such disparities offer little comfort to agents on the ground such as Avila and Zapata, who worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under Mexican law, they are not allowed to carry guns — meanwhile, cartel hit squads have an endless supply of automatic rifles (usually bought in American stores). Their (supposed to be) best defense is that if gangsters attack Americans, they will bear the brunt of U.S. efforts to hunt them down. Napolitano raised the flag for a massive response within hours of Zapata's murder. "Let me be clear: any act of violence against our ICE personnel," she said, "is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety."

The tough talk masks the fear that Mexican drug gangs, who have radicalized amid the conflict to use car bombs and directly attack civilians, no longer respect the wrath of Uncle Sam. The gunmen shot Zapata and Avila despite the fact that their car had diplomatic plates. Furthermore, according to details of the incident described by officials, they warned the attackers they were American agents, to which an attacker replied in Spanish, "I don't give a f___."

The identities and motives of the attackers remain unclear. The agents had met colleagues in the state of San Luis Potosí to drop off communications equipment before they came under attack on the drive home to Mexico City. It is still uncertain exactly what they were investigating. ICE uses undercover work, paid informants and other techniques to sting all kinds of cross-border menaces, from human smugglers to sex tourists, as well as working together with — and sometimes stepping on the toes of — the Drug Enforcement Administration. Any such probes could anger Mexico's cartels, which now run a portfolio of crimes. Gangsters could also just have been trying to carjack the Suburban truck for their operations — an increasingly common occurrence on Mexican roads. Officials have mentioned the Zetas gang as suspects, since they are strong in the area, although they have said it is too early to be sure.

If the agents were deliberately targeted, the inevitable suspicion is that someone passed information of their movements to the cartels. In recent years, dozens of Mexican officials have been arrested for leaking data to gangsters. "There could be many ways of tracking the agents, including bugging their phones. But the suspicion of traitors is bound to be there," says David Shirk of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. A distrust of Mexican security institutions was also highlighted by WikiLeaks. In one cable dating from December 2009, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual complained the army had deliberately failed to move on American information about a wanted trafficker. In another cable, John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, wrote a scathing assessment of the Mexican armed forces, saying they were "incapable of processing information and evidence."

But perhaps the biggest pressure on the drug-war alliance is its failure to stop violence. After four years of record-breaking busts and the shooting or arrests of a dozen kingpins, the bloodshed has sunk to new depths. The same week as the murder of Zapata saw a single massacre of 18 victims and a grenade attack on shoppers. Between Feb. 17 and Feb. 19 alone, there were a stunning 51 murders in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, the worst rate in recent memory. In total there have been more than 35,000 killings in Mexico's drug war, including gangsters, security forces and civilians. But now that an American law-enforcement agent has become one of the casualties, Washington may re-examine the rationale of a war that many observers believe is only further inflamed by the attacks on the cartels.