Here is the official statement from ICE, issued on Feb. 15:
"Earlier this afternoon, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents assigned to the ICE Attaché office in Mexico City were shot in the line of duty while driving between Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, by unknown assailants. ICE is working with the U.S. State Department, Mexican authorities and other U.S. law enforcement partners to investigate the shooting. Our thoughts and prayers are with our colleagues."
News reports on their websites and Twitter had little to add. One agent was reportedly critically wounded, and the other seriously wounded. One of the two agents was also said to be from Brownsville.
I got several questions from readers on my Facebook Fan Page asking what ICE agents are doing in Mexico. Here's some info from the State Department on the Attaché Office's mission there:
"The major goals of the ICE Attaché Mexico City MLS are sharing with the Mexican law enforcement and prosecutorial communities methods utilized by money launderers, supporting money laundering investigations that originate in the U.S. with Mexican nexus, and providing reciprocal support to the Mexican Government in their financial investigations. Additionally, it is a goal of the ICE Attaché Mexico City to assist Mexican law enforcement in developing more comprehensive investigative and preventive strategies by conducting increasingly complex joint investigations. To address the threat of money laundering activities between the U.S. and Mexico, the ICE Attaché Mexico City established the Money Laundering Section (MLS), comprised of ICE Attaché personnel. The ICE Attaché Mexico City has successfully conducted high profile money laundering investigations resulting in the dismantling of large criminal organizations, which utilized sophisticated methods to hide the source of their illicit funds.
"To further enhance the MLS, the ICE Mexico Money Laundering Vetted Unit (MLVU) was created in 2002. The MLVU is comprised of 34 vetted Mexican law enforcement officials and five prosecutors, who are assigned to the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones (AFI). The officers of the MLVU work in conjunction with ICE Attaché personnel to assist in conducting money laundering and other financial crime investigations, assist in obtaining provisional arrest and search warrants, and developing leads.
"The ICE Attaché Mexico City also conducts significant investigations of “Politically Exposed Persons” (PEP) and Money Remitters (Casas de Cambios). PEP cases are focused on public corruption in Mexico and the use of the U.S. financial institutions to hide the illicit proceeds of cime. The Money Remitter cases involve investigations of businesses and individuals that frequently use money exchange mechanisms to serve as alternatives to the official banking system. Casas de Cambio provide currency conversion, exchanges and money movement services for a fee. Since these businesses are numerous and more lightly regulated than banks, these exchange houses are often utilized by large-scale criminal organizations, including terrorists, to launder large amounts of currency throughout the world. The ICE Attaché Mexico City is addressing these threats by developing proactive strategies and providing investigative leads to the ICE domestic offices."
Analysis: I normally don't do "breaking news" type posts on my blog, but this event is pretty significant because it's not every day that US law enforcement agents get shot in Mexico. There are too many unanswered questions right now for me to do anything other than speculate, and I have more questions than answers right now.
The biggest question is, of course, were the two agents specifically targeted, or were they just an opportunity? The two missionaries who were shot at - and the wife killed - north of San Fernando a couple of weeks ago were shot at by DTO thugs because they wanted the Davises' truck. The agents were driving a black Chevy Suburban with US diplomatic plates; these are pretty high up on the DTO "most wanted" list for SUVs. I'm hoping that's the case, because if these agents were targeted by DTOs in Kiki Camarena style, then we have a big problem.
There's a first time for everything, but I don't think DTOs have made the VERY courageous leap yet to start picking off US law enforcement working in-country. Second, I don't think they'd start with two ICE agents if they really wanted to send a message. Third, they would have had to know that those agents would be on that road in that vehicle at that time. While US diplomatic facilities in Mexico have been infiltrated by DTOs before, the chances of someone working their way inside enough to get that info isn't likely. However, it is possible that, if the agents were meeting with Mexican counterparts, DTOs could have gotten the agents' itinerary through those counterparts. Still, an unlikely scenario.
I am concerned by some updated information from the LA Times that the agents were caught up in a road blockade set up by narcos about a third of the way to Monterrey. If this is true, then the narcos definitely would have taken notice of the diplomatic plates. For them to pursue and fire at two individuals riding in a consular vehicle is profoundly disturbing...again, it that is, in fact, what happened.
The next major question becomes, what is the US government's response going to be? For all intents and purposes, I think it's going to be minimal and inadequate. Of course they'll do everything they can to investigate, but they'll probably never find out who the shooters were, less who they were working for (if anyone). The Mexican authorities may do a bit more than they did in the David Hartley case because it was two US law enforcement agents who were shot and not "civilians," but they have their own problems...like staying alive.
My heart goes out to the families of these two agents, especially the family of the agent who died from his wounds. I pray the other will fully recover from his injuries. I'll try to keep my readers updated as best I can on this situation.
UPDATE 2/16 at 0815: I'm starting to see several media reports that the SUV the agents were in was boxed in and run off the road by armed members of Los Zetas, just outside their stronghold of San Luis Potosí. I don't know yet if they were shot while still in the vehicle, or were forced out and then shot. I also don't know how they got away, or if the Zetas just left them there afterwards. One of the two agents - presumably Jaime Zapata, the agent who later died - was medevac'd by helicopter to Mexico City, so someone was able to call for help.
Here's an image of the SUV they were driving:
Some observers have asked the very good question, why were these agents driving from the DF to Monterrey instead of flying? For those of you not familiar with Mexico's geography, Monterrey is a good 11-hour drive north of Mexico City, and involves the use of two highways - Mexico's route 57 and route 85. Route 57 has been the site of roadblocks and narco attacks before.
I originally said I didn't believe these agents were intentionally targeted, but were more of an opportunistic find for their attackers. As information about the attack trickles in, I may be changing my assessment. We know Los Zetas are probably the most violent and the most brazen of all the DTOs operating in Mexico right now, so I'd pick them to be the first to try killing US law enforcement agents on purpose. There are still too many plausible scenarios to choose from right now, so more wait-and-see is in order.
UPDATE 2/15 at 1001: I'm taking a closer look at the Chevy Suburban the ICE agents were driving, and I'd bet a lot of money that's an armored vehicle. It looks pretty clean on the outside from the photos published on the El Paso Times site, and the driver's side window is up (many armored vehicles are made so the front windows can be rolled down up to seven inches). So how do you shoot two US agents who are riding in a "hard car"? The photos only show the driver's side, but there aren't any glaring scratches on the outside that would indicate random firing at the SUV.
This might indicate the agents were shot while sitting inside the Suburban. What would have convinced them to either roll down the window or open the door? I don't know what level of protection their SUV had because the level of armoring is tailored. If the checkpoint looked official enough, the attackers may have been asked by convincingly disguised Zetas to show identification. However, this conflicts with media reports that they were boxed in, then run off the road. If that's true, how did the actual shooting occur, and why were they left alive (at the time) by the Zetas? If they were intentionally targeted because they were ICE agents, then both would have been either kidnapped or executed on the spot, in my opinion. Perhaps the attackers shot first and asked questions later, then panicked when they saw who their catch of the day was.
It's highly likely the Zetas just wanted the SUV; after all, nothing screams NARCO in Mexico more than a black armored SUV. But if they wanted the car that badly, why didn't the attackers drive it away after shooting the agents? Perhaps they saw the plates at that point and didn't want to mess with a stolen hard car belonging to the US government. Or, they just wanted to get out of an ugly situation quickly and left the bleeding agents and their prized SUV behind. The more answers I get, the more questions I have...