Two U.S. Customs Agents Shot in Mexico, One Killed

Gunmen related to organized crime attacked two U.S. customs agents in Mexico yesterday, wounding one and killing the other in the second murder of a U.S. government employee across the border in a year.

The agents were shot in the line of duty in San Luis Potosi state yesterday by unknown assailants as they drove on a federal highway between Mexico City and Monterrey, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said. The Zetas drug gang may be responsible, said a U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous because the investigation isn’t complete.

ICE special agent Jaime Zapata, a native of Brownsville, Texas, was killed in the attack, John Morton, director of the agency, said in an e-mailed statement. The injured agent, who was shot in the arm and the leg, remains in stable condition, Morton said, without giving his name.

The killing may hurt U.S. tourism and investment in Mexico by deepening concern over violence, said Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.

“This clearly doesn’t help the image in the U.S. media and some parts of the government that Mexico can’t control organized crime,” Chabat said in a telephone interview.

Ambush

The ICE agents appeared to be ambushed while driving a sports-utility vehicle on a routine business trip yesterday, although there is conflicting information regarding how the agents were stopped, the anonymous U.S. official said.

The Zetas drug cartel has claimed responsibility, although the group’s involvement hasn’t been confirmed, the official said.

The agents were driving a dark blue Chevrolet Suburban with diplomatic license plates when were they were attacked around 3:20 p.m. local time yesterday 47 kilometers (29 miles) from the city of San Luis Potosi, newspaper Reforma reported.

The Milenio network broadcast images of the Suburban pulled to the side of a highway, its windows punctured by bullet holes.

San Luis Potosi state Governor Fernando Toranzo said in an interview with Mexico City-based W Radio today that organized crime was responsible for the attack as territorial battles between drug cartels have intensified in the state.

He said the agents were passing through San Luis Potosi and weren’t working with any local officials.

Investigation

The Mexican government and U.S. law enforcement officials are investigating the shooting, according to the ICE statement. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement that her department had made resources available for the investigation.

“Any act of violence against our ICE personnel is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety,” Napolitano said in the statement.

The Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement today that it had begun an official investigation.

Zapata, who joined ICE in 2006, was most recently assigned to work as the agency’s attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and had previously served in the human smuggling and trafficking unit in Laredo, Texas, Morton said in the statement. Zapata had also worked at the Homeland Security Department and as a member of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Zapata

Zapata is the fourth agent since 2001 to die in the line of duty, and the only one to die in Mexico, said Kelly Nantel, an ICE spokeswoman.

Spokesmen at the Mexican attorney general’s office and Public Security Ministry said they didn’t have further information when contacted by telephone. Officials at President Felipe Calderon’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City declined to comment.

In March of last year, a drive-by shooting in Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas, killed an U.S. citizen who was an employee of the U.S. consulate in that city, her husband and the husband of a Mexican citizen employee.

Deaths related to drug trafficking increased almost 60 percent in Mexico last year and total more than 34,000 since Calderon took office in December 2006. The government estimates the violence shaves 1.2 percentage points off economic output annually.

Public Perception

Public perception of security has worsened in the past year, according to a poll released this month by the national statistics agency. The index measuring Mexicans’ view of how safe they are fell to 98.2 in January from 100.5 a year earlier.

The U.S. government has taken more measures in the past year to warn and protect its employees in Mexico. The State Department authorized the departure of dependents of U.S. consulate personnel in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border after the employees in Ciudad Juarez were killed.

Even as violence escalated last year, the country’s economy expanded faster than forecast. Gross domestic product probably rose 5.3 percent to 5.6 percent in 2010, Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero said last week. The government in October had forecast that GDP would grow 4.8 percent.

Tourism revenue in Mexico grew 5.3 percent to $11.8 billion last year compared with 2009, when the global financial crisis and the H1N1 flu virus caused the number of visitors to drop, the Tourism Ministry said Feb. 13.

Mexico’s peso rose 0.5 percent to 12.0964 per dollar at 12:32 p.m. New York time. The benchmark IPC index, which has climbed 17 percent from a year earlier, rose 0.3 percent to 37,066.15.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jens Erik Gould at jgould9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net

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