BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Gunmen from Mexico's ruthless Zetas drug gang carried out a highway ambush that killed one U.S. federal agent and wounded another this week, a Texas congressman said Thursday.
Michael McCaul said Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata, 32, was killed by members of the Zeta cartel after a group of 10 to 15 armed men in two vehicles forced Zapata's Chevy Suburban off a highway in San Luis Potosi state on Tuesday afternoon. ICE Agent Victor Avila was shot twice in the leg.
McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and was briefed on the attack by intelligence sources as part of his position. He said the agents, both of whom were assigned to Texas but on temporary assignment in Mexico, identified themselves as U.S. diplomats before being shot, "hoping they (the Zetas) would honor the long-standing tradition that they don't (target) U.S. law enforcement."
"This was a complete ambush," said the Texas Republican, who said investigators recovered least 90 bullet casings from the scene.
"This is a complete game changer," McCaul said. "They are changing the rules."
He said that while the motive for the attack remains unclear, one thing is certain: "There's no case of mistaken identity."
Authorities have said the agents were likely in the wrong place at the wrong time and that their SUV is of a kind coveted by drug cartels in the area.
San Luis Potosi borders two northern Mexican states where the Zetas and the rival Gulf Cartel have waged bloody battles over territory. Zapata and Avila were temporarily detailed to the ICE attache office in Mexico City and were driving from the northern city of Monterrey to the Mexican capital at the time of the attack.
Mexican authorities are investigating the shooting but have not announced any arrests.
"My sense is that we know, we probably have pretty good intelligence as to who was behind this," McCaul said. "That's what it appears to be."
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder have formed a joint task force led by the FBI to help Mexico find the killers.
Holder said Thursday that U.S. officials would look closely at the security situation in Mexico and make any changes warranted to ensure that U.S. personnel "have maximum protection."
The Mexican government does not allow U.S. law enforcement personnel operating in its territory to carry weapons. Holder said the U.S. government will examine whether American agents in Mexico need to carry guns or other safeguards need to be instituted in light of the shootings.
"We will look at this and we'll do . . . an analysis of what it is that we need to do to make sure that everybody is as safe down there as we can make them," he said.
McCaul said he wants to move more aggressively.
"We are helping them, they are not helping us," McCaul said. "If we are going to put our guys down there . . . to allow them not to be armed really puts them right in the bulls-eye and they are sitting targets."
McCaul also said he wants to schedule congressional hearings to examine the U.S. role in Mexico's ongoing drug war, which has killed more than 35,000 people since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the country's drug gangs shortly after taking office in December 2006.
Avila serves on a unit to deter human trafficking and is based in El Paso, Texas.
Zapata, a native of Brownsville, had been based out of Laredo, Texas. He joined Homeland Security in 2006, served on the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit as well as the Border Enforcement Security Task Force. He also formerly was a member of the U.S. Border Patrol in Yuma, Ariz.
On Thursday, police and ICE officers barred access to Zapata's mother's home in this border city across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico, using cruisers, motorcycles and blue-and-white ICE truck to block access to a private road, which forked off a two-lane parkway lined with tall, thin palm trees and unassuming, one-story homes.
Brownsville police spokesman Eddie Garcia said the department doesn't usually provide such protection to the family of shooting victims but that it was appropriate given the circumstances.
The security is "for the privacy of the family. The family is not ready to come out yet and give interviews," Garcia said. He declined further, directing all queries to ICE. Funeral arrangements were being handled by the Buena Vista Funeral Home not far from the family home, but officials could not confirm when Zapata's remains would arrive.
The U.S. State Department has taken several measures over the past year to protect consulate employees and their families in Mexico, although attacks on Americans are rare. It has at times authorized the departure of relatives of U.S. government employees in northern Mexican cities.
In July, it temporarily closed the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, a city at the center of Mexico's drug cartel violence, after receiving unspecified threats. Earlier this month, the consulate in Guadalajara prohibited U.S. government officials from traveling after dark on the road to the airport because of cartel-related attacks in Mexico's second-largest city.
Caldwell reported from Washington.
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