The Obama administration is forming a task force to investigate the shooting of two U.S. customs agents in Mexico, an attack that killed the second U.S. government employee across the border in a year.
The probe into the attack will involve the Homeland Security and Justice Departments, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. 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.
ICE special agent Jaime Zapata, a native of Brownsville, Texas, was killed in the shooting, John Morton, director of the agency, said in an e-mailed statement. The other agent, who was shot in the arm and the leg, remains in stable condition, Morton said, without giving his name.
“U.S. law enforcement agencies are working closely with Mexican authorities to investigate the shooting,” Carney said. “The resources of the federal government are at the disposal of our Mexican partners.”
President Barack Obama called the parents of the agent killed to express condolences, Carney said.
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, said a U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous because the investigation isn’t complete.
The Zetas drug cartel has claimed responsibility, although the group’s involvement hasn’t been confirmed, the official said.
The assailants stopped the agents’ vehicle and proceeded to fire on Zapata and his partner even after they said they worked for the U.S. government, according to a report today from the New York Times, which cited Michael McCaul, a U.S. representative from Texas.
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.
The Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement today that it had begun an official investigation.
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.
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 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 a 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.
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.
Mexico’s peso rose 0.5 percent to 12.0884 per dollar at 2:25 p.m. New York time. The benchmark IPC index, which has climbed 17.4 percent from a year earlier, rose 0.5 percent to 37,128.88.