Mistaken identity theory gains traction in Falcon Lake 'pirate' attack

An intelligence firm suggests that Americans David Hartley and Tiffany Hartley, who were attacked on Falcon Lake along the Texas-Mexico border, were mistaken as drug cartel spies by junior members of a rival Mexican gang.

Eric Gay/AP/File
In this Oct. 6 photo Tiffany Hartley, left, and family members, lay a wreath near the site where her husband, David Hartley, was shot last month on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. An intelligence firm suggests that Hartley's murderers mistook him for someone else.

Officials on the US side of Falcon Lake, where David Hartley, a US tourist, was shot on Sept. 30 while Jet Skiing, are giving some credence to a theory that Mr. Hartley and his wife were mistaken as drug cartel spies by "pirates" linked to another cartel, setting in motion a tense, and ongoing, international incident.

US and Mexican authorities so far have no official explanation for the shooting of Hartley, but a report by a global intelligence firm posited this week that Mr. Hartley and his wife, Tiffany Hartley, stumbled into an ambush engineered by lower-level cartel members – perhaps teenagers – who made an unauthorized decision to confront and fire upon the couple.

Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, the lead Texas investigator into the shooting, acknowledged on Thursday that it "wouldn't be unheard of" for cartel members to confront suspected spies.

Howard Campbell, author of "Drug War Zone," told CNN Friday that the shooting may be the result of the Zeta cartel, which is believed to be behind Hartley's murder, growing more desperate beneath a government crackdown and intensifying battles with other drug lords.

"There are reports that recently the Zetas have become a bit desperate and have been using ill-trained, reckless teenagers which can lead to mistakes of this kind," he told CNN in an e-mail Friday. "The leaders of Mexican drug cartels try to minimize attacks on Americans because they know this would bring pressure on their organizations."

Ms. Hartley told police in the US that lake "pirates" shot her husband and chased her into Texas waters before she got away.

A test for Mexico

That confrontation appears now to have roiled the local cartel wars, even as it has called into question the Mexican government’s ability to withstand intimidation from fearless cartels.

According to the anonymously sourced Stratfor report, the beheading this week of a Mexican investigator looking into the attack, Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, was roundly seen as a stern message to both Mexican and US authorities "that no body will be produced and to leave the situation alone."

On Thursday Mexican authorities ended a two-week search for Mr. Hartley.

"[As illustrated by the Falcon Lake situation], the stability of the Mexican political system seems to be under threat," says Gary Freeman, a political scientist at the University of Texas, in Austin. "These narcotrafficking drug lords seem to have no fear, and there's such corruption in the police that I just wonder how they can put the cap back on the bottle."

The Stratfor report has been neither confirmed nor denied by US law enforcement authorities.

According to the report, the Hartleys, who had recently moved back to the US from Mexico for safety reasons, showed up at Falcon Lake with a Jet Ski trailer bearing Tamaulipas state tags. The Stratfor report, which notes that rival drug cartels routinely use Jet Skis to spy on one another, says scouts from the notorious Zeta gang may have instead pegged them as spies from the Gulf Coast Cartel. Stratfor says a radio communication reporting the presence of the Jet Skiing couple was monitored.

Stratfor says the apparent case of mistaken identity may prove costly for some of the Zeta "pirates" who have terrorized US bass fishermen on the Mexican side of the lake at least five times this year. According to the report, after the men apparently broke cartel protocol by not getting authorization to confront the Jet Skis, the No. 2 Zeta cartel chief, Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales, is hunting for the men so he can "take care of them himself."

"[A] damage control campaign is currently under way … to identify and eliminate those who engaged the Hartleys without proper authorization," according to the Stratfor report. "Once Hartley was identified as an American, his body was destroyed the same day as the incident to prevent a backlash from the US government against the group."

The Zetas are fighting against their former bosses, the Gulf Coast Cartel, for control of parts of the border, including Falcon Lake.

Battles in Mexico

Gun battles have been reported near Falcon Lake in the aftermath of the Hartley murder. On Oct. 8, Mexican military engaged cartel members near New Guerrero in a battle that left six dead, including one soldier. On Thursday, an American traveler along the Rio Grande reported hearing a two-hour gun battle near the lake.

“The gunfire started at 9 a.m. this morning," Jay Johnson-Castro, a US environmentalist, told the Rio Grande Guardian newspaper. "As long as we were outside, we heard it. We were outside for quite a few minutes. It sounded like a real battle going on. It was automatic fire; then you would hear individual shots and then more automatic fire, and then rifles going."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that the United States is "doing everything that we know how to do" to find Hartley. "I hope that we can [find him]. I mean, the beheaded body of the brave Mexican investigator that just showed up shows what we're dealing with."

Mexican authorities on Thursday denied Mr. Flores' killing had anything to do with the Hartley investigation, saying he had many enemies in the area. But a Rio Grande Valley TV station says Flores, a few days before his murder, handed off documents to the station pointing to two specific Zeta cartel members, a pair of brothers who are wanted in Mexico on murder and robbery charges.

On Thursday, a search-and-rescue effort on the Mexican side that had involved more than 100 boats and divers ended. "Our investigators have taken a temporary recess so that we can better assess the strategies we are using to find the body. We are currently considering other approaches to our search," said Ruben Dario Rios, Tamaulipas state attorney general, according to CNN.

Falcon Lake, a historic smuggling route, has just this year turned into a major flashpoint in Mexico's drug war, raising worries on the US side about "spillover violence" that will affect Americans more directly. At the same time, it has given Americans a personal glimpse into the workings of fearless and ruthless cartels involved in a war with the Mexico government that has cost more than 26,000 lives, including cartel-ordered assassinations of mayors and police officials.

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