Shooting of U.S. Agents in Mexico Renews Drug War Tensions

BY Larisa Epatko  February 17, 2011 at 4:02 PM EDT

Mexican Police guard agents’ vehicle after it came under attack by gunmen in San Luis Potosi State in Mexico. (El Pulso/AFP/Getty Images)

The shooting death of a U.S. special agent and injury of another has put added strain on an already-violent drug standoff in Mexico as authorities in both countries investigate the crime.

On Tuesday, gunmen fired on the SUV driven by the agents on a central Mexico highway, killing Jaime Zapata and wounding Victor Avila. Avila, still recovering from his wounds was discharged from a hospital on Wednesday.

The two men, both from Texas, were on temporary assignment in Mexico serving on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a joint task force between the Department of Homeland Security and State Department, and led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They said they would continue to work with Mexican authorities on the investigation and border security in general.

Many questions still surround the incident, reported Ioan Grillo, GlobalPost correspondent in Mexico City.

For instance, were the agents targeted specifically? If they were, as is often the case in such hits in Mexico, then it raises the question of who leaked information about where the agents would be at that particular time, Grillo told us by phone.

It could raise suspicions between American and Mexican authorities, who have been working closely together on the drug war, and questions about how U.S. agents can be better protected in the country, he said. “Whatever the truth is, those kinds of questions are definitely circulating around the law enforcement community.”

Also, the license plates of the agents’ car appeared to be covered with Mexican police stickers after the shooting, and authorities aren’t divulging whether the vehicle had diplomatic or regular Mexican plates, said Grillo. That information would shed some light on whether the assailants knew if the two men were American agents.

The targeting of American agents also would demonstrate a significant shift by drug cartels, who of late have been avoiding such tactics because of the retribution it brings, he added.

Grillo has been covering the drug war in Mexico, including this series on the violence-scarred border city of Juarez.

The NewsHour aired an Independent Television News report on Juarez on Wednesday and plans to air another on the Mexico drug war on Thursday.

Track all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.