Falcon Lake 'pirate' murder: Is beheading 'message to the Americans'?

The beheading of a Mexican detective investigating the shooting of American David Hartley on Falcon Lake raises the stakes for both the US and Mexico. The Hartley probe appeared to be narrowing to two alleged members of the Zeta cartel.

Eric Gay/AP
A Texas game warden travels with an M-16 on a Parks and Wildlife boat on Falcon Lake in Texas on Oct. 7. American David Hartley was allegedly killed on the lake by pirates linked to a drug cartel, and a Mexican investigator looking into the case has been beheaded.

The beheading of a Mexican detective investigating the Sept. 30 shooting of American David Hartley on a border lake is forcing both the United States and Mexico to weigh the pros and cons of a potential standoff with cartel-linked pirates on Falcon Lake.

Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, a homicide detective for the border state of Tamaulipas, was killed and his head delivered in a suitcase to a military outpost just days after he handed documents to a Texas TV station naming two Zeta cartel members as suspects in the shooting on Falcon Lake. The 60-mile-long lake straddles Texas and Mexico.

"The will of both nations is at stake right now," says Texas legislator Aaron Peña, who broke the story of the beheading via Twitter on Tuesday. "I think what [the beheading] does is strengthens resolve of people on the American side of the border and for the Mexican government exposes a do or die circumstance."

Coming after a record 79 Americans were killed in Mexico in 2009, the Falcon Lake shooting and the murder of the Mexican investigator has become a talking point in the Texas gubernatorial race, and has sparked calls for the White House to get directly involved by further militarizing the border.

On Wednesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety on Wednesday issued a new travel warning, for the first time bluntly telling people, "just don't go" to Mexico, reported KURV radio in McAllen, Texas.

"[The cartels] have notched it up a level, and the [beheading] is a message to the Americans as well," says Gary Freeman, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, and an expert on border politics. "The beheading has such strong resonance with Islamic fundamentalism that it raises the specter of groups in Mexico being as fanatical and as bloodthirsty as Osama bin Laden and his gang. They seem to be copying some of their techniques, and that might be deliberate."

The Sept. 30 shooting of Mr. Hartley, who was sightseeing on his Jet Ski deep on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake with his wife, Tiffany Hartley, is the most dramatic of a series of incidents in which armed men in boats have confronted, and in some cases robbed, US bass fishermen working the far shore of the lake.

Calls to beef up military presence

Falcon Lake, created in 1954, has long been a smuggling zone for drugs and humans, and is difficult to patrol. In the past year, tensions have risen as the Gulf Coast Cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, fight each other and the Mexican government in Mexico City for control of smuggling routes and remote hideouts like Falcon Lake.

To be sure, some have doubted Ms. Hartley's story of how the couple was chased by pirates and her husband killed. Others, including some US politicians, have questioned why the Hartleys ventured into Mexico despite warnings about pirate attacks.

But the beheading of the Mexican detective, says Mr. Peña, creates a new level of outrage in the US-Mexico border lands.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) last week urged the Obama administration to bring more national guard troops and to add armed aerial drones to patrol Falcon Lake. Governor Perry has resisted sending the Texas Rangers, who are under his command, to Falcon Lake in fear of political repercussions should someone get killed or hurt.

Last weekend, Sigifredo Gonzalez, sheriff of Texas's Zapata County, declined offers to help Mexican state authorities search the Mexican side of the lake, fearing a shootout. That came as other incidents of "spillover violence" from the drug war in Mexico, which has claimed more than 26,000 lives in the past four years, began to worry many in the borderlands.

Did detective have a lead?

Though Mexican authorities had publicly said they had no suspects, the Mexican homicide detective, Mr. Flores, delivered documents to KRGV-TV over the weekend that named two suspected Zeta members, Juan Pedro and Jose Manual Saldivar Farias, in Hartley's shooting, the TV station said.

According to the documents, the pair are members of the pirate contingent that has terrorized US boaters and residents of a nearby Mexican town, and both men are already wanted by Mexican authorities on murder and robbery charges, the TV station's statement alleges.

"I would assume he was killed because he was either trying to assist in the rescue operation or search operation, or because he may have provided some documents to the media, from what I understand," Sheriff Gonzalez told KRGV Tuesday.

In the wake of the new murder, border politicians stepped up calls for President Obama to become more directly involved in the US response, which has so far involved a contingent of local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities.

"There's no excuse for Obama not getting down here," says Peña. "We're only going to resolve it with a federal response. Just hoping that it's going to go away is not going to happen."

While much of the political debate in the US has focused on illegal immigration, the gruesome Falcon Lake cases could reshape the border debate as the cartels attempt to intimidate state and federal governments on both sides, says Professor Freeman.

"Our concern about migration … is missing the point," he says. "Now it's really lawlessness on both sides and the spread of violence across the border that has really created a great crisis. With the increase in violence, people are going to have to rethink their attitude toward the border and think of that river or line in the sand as being something that might need to be seriously enforced."

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