MEXICO CITY – Suspected drug cartel gunmen fatally shot a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and wounded a second agent Tuesday as they drove on a heavily traveled federal highway in central Mexico, U.S. and Mexican officials said.
U.S. officials said an investigation was under way to determine whether the agents were specifically targeted or were random victims of the escalating violence that has gripped the nation. They were driving a dark-colored SUV with diplomatic plates, officials said.
A U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two agents were shot by drug traffickers as they approached an unofficial checkpoint thought to be manned by the paramilitary group known as the Zetas.
The traffickers were operating not far from a Mexican military checkpoint, the official said, and the two agents were probably unarmed.
ICE Director John Morton late Tuesday identified the slain agent as Jaime Zapata, who was on assignment from the office in Laredo, Texas, where he served on the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit as well as the Border Enforcement Security Task Force. The injured agent was not identified.
Investigators are looking into whether the assailants may have had inside information about the agents’ route and schedule, an official said.
The incident is likely to deepen concerns in Washington about Mexico’s deteriorating security.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the attack “the latest reminder of the grievous violence south of our border that must be stopped.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a statement saying she was “deeply saddened.” She said the agents were assigned to the ICE office in Mexico City and were driving from Mexico City to Monterrey when they were shot by unknown assailants.
She said U.S. law enforcement agencies were working closely with Mexican authorities to capture the assailants.
“Let me be clear,” Napolitano said. “Any act of violence against our ICE personnel – or any DHS personnel – is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety.” She added, “We remain committed in our broader support for Mexico’s efforts to combat violence within its borders.”
The attack occurred on Federal Highway 57 in the state of San Luis Potosi, which borders Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, two states on the Texas border where much of the violence has been centered. The region is being disputed by two organized crime groups, the Zetas and their former employers, the Gulf cartel.
Threats against U.S. officials working in Mexico are not uncommon, though with few exceptions U.S. personnel have been spared the savagery that has killed more than 35,000 people since President Felipe Calderon declared war on organized crime in late 2006.
A pregnant U.S. Consulate worker and her husband were killed in March in Ciudad Juarez as they were driving home to El Paso from a birthday party.
Lesley A. Enriquez, 25, a consulate employee, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelf, 30, were shot in a daylight attack. An investigation into the killings is continuing, though a local drug gang was implicated in the shootings.
In 1985, the U.S. shut down the border with Mexico after undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and killed. Camarena had infiltrated Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel and was instrumental in bringing down a marijuana plantation worth an estimated $8 billion annually at the time.
The U.S. State Department has taken several measures over the past year to protect consulate employees and their families.
In July, it temporarily closed the consulate in Ciudad Juarez after receiving unspecified threats.