Foreign Policy Blogs

ICE Agent Killed in Mexico: Survivor Provides Clues

The killing on February 15  of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of his companion, Special Agent Victor Avila, now hospitalized in the US, has sent shockwaves through the federal law enforcement community in the United States, conjuring up memories of the brutal kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA Agent Enrique (“Kiki”) Camarena by Mexican drug cartels in 1985.

When DEA Agent Camarena’s body was discovered by US authorities in March 1985, and an autopsy indicated that the 38 year-old former Marine had been brutally tortured (skull smashed, windpipe crushed, a hole in Camarena’s head administered via electric drill, and evidence that he, like his driver, may have been buried alive), US law enforcement flooded across Mexico, making it clear to authorities there that Mexico’s cooperation on this investigation was a given.

Eventually, all the players in Mexico got the message, and the Mexican physician who had kept Camarena alive in order to extend his torture, along with other perpetrators, were “thrown across the fence,” as they say in law enforcement parlance, and arrested by federal authorities in the US. Extradition of a Mexican citizen to the United States is prohibited by Mexican law.

Something similar may occur in the next few weeks, as another flood of ICE, DEA and FBI agents begin to ‘work cooperatively’ with Mexican officials to identify and apprehend Zapata’s killers—and this time there remains a living eyewitness to the attack near the town of Santa Maria del Rio, Zapata’s fellow-agent who is now hospitalized and cooperating with authorities.

Anatomy of the Ambush

Reports indicate that the ICE agents were the targets of a highway chase by vehicles belonging to their assailants before they arrived at the checkpoint, and once at the checkpoint, the US government vehicle was boxed in by vehicles carrying eight Mexican gunman, each armed with a long weapon.

The surviving ICE agent was able to get a close look at the attackers before they opened fire on the government SUV in which he and Zapata were traveling; one of the Mexican gunmen peered into a window the agents lowered at the request of their assailants. The ICE agents, unarmed in compliance with Mexican law, were able to escape the checkpoint after the shooting and travel a short distance before Agent Zapata collapsed behind the wheel.

The attack plan clearly reflects premeditation and organization, facts that contradict the “wrong place at the wrong time” analysis offered to reporters by some official US government spokespeople.

Gunmen also fired into the vehicle from both sides (90 rounds were recovered from the site), action that appears to discount other theories now circulating in the press that the attack may have been motivated simply by the desire to hijack a high-value SUV similar to one stolen a short time ago from a missionary working in Mexico.

Unlike the Camarena affair, where there were no eyewitnesses left to testify, this leaves the Mexican government is a tenuous position, with little room for shifting blame or denying possible connections between the cartels, in this case most likely the Zetas, and actors who have so far managed to escape international scrutiny.

To his credit, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, called the attack on the ICE agents ‘a complete ambush,’ adding that he also believed the incident to be a “complete game changer” in regard, one assumes, to ‘the rules’ now governing US-Mexico relations.

Department of Homeland Security

Questions also remain for the Department of Homeland Security.

While news reports indicate only that Zapata and his companion were traveling the 600 miles between Mexico City and the US border ‘on official duty,’ the fact is that the two ICE agents had been ordered by superiors in Mexico City to report to home offices in the United States for the purpose of fulfilling the biannual requirement that each agent “qualifies” with his or her weapon on a range approved by DHS.

Given the mundane nature of this mission, it is impossible not to question the decision of high-ranking DHS officials in Mexico City to instruct Zapata and his fellow-agent, not to fly back to the States, which would have been less expensive, but to travel 600 miles through some of the most dangerous territory in Mexico in an easily identified government vehicle.

It is common knowledge within DHS, DEA, indeed, throughout the US enforcement community, that any journey from Mexico City to the US border requires travelers to pass through numerous checkpoints, many of them “narco-blockades” manned by the Zetas or, in some cases, well-paid surrogates pulled from the ranks of former police or military.

ICE insiders are puzzled as well: in some quarters, there is speculation, uncorroborated, that the decision to send Zapata and his fellow-agent by vehicle across the no-man’s land between Mexico’s capital and the United States might have been triggered by an imprudent decision on the part of DHS management.

While there has been no suggestion that Zapata and his colleague were deliberately placed in harm’s way by their DHS superiors, federal agents familiar with the interplay of US-Mexico drug enforcement politics, and the dynamics that underlie decision-making within DHS and DEA, indicate that lack of coordination and careless oversight are almost certainly among the factors responsible for the attack near the town of Santa Maria del Rio.

There is also wonderment at the failure of DHS officials in Mexico City to provide the ICE agents with the necessary ‘credentials’ the men would need to pass through both legitimate checkpoints and any ‘narco-blockades’ they might encounter.

Drug enforcement agents in Mexico are routinely supplied with identification papers or other bona fides that allow them to navigate through territory held by traffickers and other criminal gangs. Surely US government agencies had sufficient intel to anticipate the presence of ambush sites, controlled by the Zetas or other cartel assassins, along the route from Mexico City to the US border.

White House Outraged

President Obama has promised Zapata’s family that the US government will spare no effort to bring the Mexican gunman responsible for the attack to justice, and Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, has also ‘expressed outrage':

“Because the attack occurred on Mexican soil, Mexican authorities have jurisdiction in the investigation. However, Napolitano said the full resources of her department “are at the disposal of our Mexican partners in this investigation.”

Translation: The Mexican authorities have told the United States ‘hands-off’ regarding this investigation, and Napolitano wants Mexico to know that neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Obama Administration intends to let this shooting of two unarmed ICE agents jeopardize the treaty (the Brownsville Agreement) then Attorney General Janet Reno and her Mexican counterpart signed in 1998–a treaty whereby the US agreed never again to conduct a unilateral investigation into the affairs of Mexico’s cartels and/or any links the cartels may have established with Mexican officials or institutions.

In other words, the US can only launch investigations into incidents occurring on Mexican soil in cooperation with Mexican principals who themselves–as history and evidence suggest–may be linked, closely or loosely, to the very crimes under investigation.

Example: DEA reports that “Kiki Camarena’s murder led to the most comprehensive homicide investigation ever undertaken by that agency, which ultimately uncovered corruption and complicity by numerous Mexican officials. . . .Operation Leyenda was a long and complex investigation, made more difficult by the fact that the crime was committed on foreign soil and involved major drug traffickers and corrupt government officials from Mexico.”

Of course, that was then, and this is now.

Given the dearth of substantive press coverage of Mexico’s long-running drug war, and the muted attitude of US officials toward Mexico’s efforts to curb drug trafficking and cartel violence over the past five years—during which roughly 38,000 people have been killed, including scores of US citizens—the vocalization of even these stylized objections from DHS and the White House is noteworthy.

But caution is still in the wind, with Napolitano yesterday counseling against “border rhetoric,” and the inevitable inclusion, in news reports of the attack on Agent Zapato and his colleague, of the need, not to assume a more active US enforcement posture in Mexico (to go after the bad guys ourselves if Mexican authorities won’t or can’t deliver), but to focus on beefing up US immigration laws, curtailing gun sales along the US border, and redirecting more money toward border security.

Priority: US-Mexico Relations Must Remain on Even Keel

Media deflections of this kind, designed to preempt an outcry against Mexico, its government and its inability or unwillingness to stand up against its ruling drug cartels, have been standard operating procedure within the US government and the subsidiary interests (media corporations, financial services, international traders, etc) that take their cue from our elected officials.

The scapegoat argument that identifies US gun dealers as central to the violence in Mexico has been undercut by none other than the United Nations Office of Drug Control in Vienna (UNODC) and enforcement analysts of significant stature here in the United States.

Illegal immigration is a consequence of, not a trigger, for Mexico’s current unwillingness to protect and preserve the rule of law.

And no amount of increased funding for border security is going to prevent the overflow into the United States of violence, corruption, and criminal opportunities engendered by Mexico’s illegal drug industry.

It is simply too late in the game.

When Kiki Camarena was kidnapped in February 1985, President Ronald Reagan, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Customs Commissioner William von Raab responded immediately to the investigatory impotence of Mexican authorities in concrete and powerful ways: indeed, von Raab ordered a closing of the US-Mexico border, choking off trade and all other movement across that line for days at a cost, to Mexico, of billions of US dollars.

Don’t hold your breath. In this case, the last thing we’re likely to see is a restored willingness on the part of the US government and the Obama Administration to unleash the investigatory expertise within DHS and DEA in any direct way on the drug cartels and corrupt officials across Mexico who persist in their attempts to convince the American public that it is we, not they, who are the problem.

The US will continue to negotiate, persuade, cajole and cooperate with Mexico’s political elite, who have once more been reassured by the Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, speaking on behalf of the Administration, that the US will never go digging alone into Mexico’s dirty laundry.

And the Mexican authorities, most likely after they or a more business-minded drug lord, also throw Zapata’s murderers over the fence, will go back to business-as-usual.

Let the US Fight Back

Bad move. When Mexico’s criminal armies start killing us, when they invade US territory, it’s time to stop ‘cooperating’ and start leading.

Let US enforcement agencies do what they’re trained to do—root out criminal systems and enterprise, take down the criminals and colluders (whomever they turn out to be), secure the protection of the American people and protect the rule of law.

Restart the kind of covert investigations into criminal activity within Mexico this country needs to unearth the information and the intelligence we need to stay ahead of cartel maneuvering, reinvest US law enforcement with the authority and flexibility it needs to identify and sever criminal and official alliances in Mexico, and use the funds we’re currently funneling into governmental black holes in Mexico City to underwrite the energy, skills and determination of US agents like Jaime Zapata and Kiki Camarena.

That’s when justice will be done.

The attack on ICE Agent Jaime Zapata and his fellow-agent tells us many things about the drug war in Mexico and our responses (increasingly uncoordinated, it seems) to it.

Most of those lessons, it appears, we do not want to hear. Money, as usual, is talking louder: NAFTA represents billions in profits on both sides of the border, and drug trafficking provides ‘private wealth’ managers and their institutions with a no-fail hedge fund.

But here’s the deal: if President Obama and the Homeland Security Secretary really want to put the taxpayers’ money where their mouths seem to be right now, let’s respond seriously to Jaime Zapata’s murder, and to the murders of  Border patrol Agent Brian Terry (2010); Border Patrol Agent Robert Rosas (2009), and American David Hartley (2010)—as well as to the ongoing murders along the US-Mexico border of countless innocent men, women and children—and let’s start doing it our way.

 
  • Pingback: World Spinner()

  • Pingback: Murder of US ICE agent inside Mexico sparks ignorance « El Sueño de Bolivar()

  • robertwile

    This was an excellent account of the situation but I disagree with your conclusion. As you write, the ambush appears to have been as much the consequence of poor, bureaucratic decision making as anything else. Until the cartels actually begin to encroach on U.S. territory, there is not much we can do.

  • chris

    there IS something that can be done.robertwile=
    get telecommunications on that road where
    jaime zapata and his partner was .
    a cell phone with camera would have resolved the
    ‘mystery’ of the who which will give us the why.

Author

Kathleen Millar
Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.

GreadDecisions in foreign policy discussion group ad v2