Why Mexican 'pirates' are targeting US tourists on Falcon Lake

New drug trafficking routes into the United States may now intersect more with tourist areas such as Falcon Lake.

Eric Gay/AP Photo
Escorted by Texas Parks and Wildlife, Tiffany Hartley, center, and family members, lay a wreath near the site where her husband, David, who was shot last week, Wednesday, Oct. 6, on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. Hartman was shot by Mexican pirates on Falcon Lake last week as they were returning to the United States on Jet Skis.

The attack that allegedly killed the missing American tourist David Hartley on Sept. 30 while he was jet-skiing with his wife was not the first such incident on the 60-mile-long body of water straddling the United States and Mexico.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, gunmen armed with AK-47s and AR-15 rifles have attacked US tourists on Lake Falcon in a string of robberies in recent months. Using Argos-type fishing boats, some attackers are dressed as Mexican police, while others have used crude duct-taped signs to disguise their boats as Texas Parks and Wildlife vessels, according to victims' reports.

Since April 30, five incidents of armed robberies or attempted theft have been reported on Falcon Lake: one in April, two in May, and one in August. The fifth ambush allegedly ended in gunfire last week with the possible death of Mr. Hartley.

“This is a new situation where [drug-trafficking] groups feel they own public spaces,” says Humberto Palomares, a security expert at the Tamaulipas campus of the Colegio de Frontera Norte (COLEF).

Targeting US tourists on an international reservoir is just another sign that the cartels feel more in control of swaths of Mexican territory and don’t have to hide in wait for moments to strike, Mr. Palomares says.

Lurking in the night

So dangerous is Lake Falcon, in fact, that Mexican law enforcement refuses to patrol it at night.

Mexican authorities have been searching Falcon Lake since Thursday for the body of Mr. Hartley. Their search is hampered in part by the danger of the lake, says Juan Antonio Jara, a Tamaulipas state prosecutor in the Miguel Aleman municipality office.

Once it starts getting dark, he says, police and investigators must return to shore because "it's a high risk area due to [lack of] security."

'Z' for Zetas

Some report that the bandits attacking tourists and fishermen on Lake Falcon have been brandishing “Z” tattoos, for the ruthless Zetas drug-trafficking group.

But questions have emerged over why a well-funded crime syndicate would bother harassing US fishermen for a few hundred dollars, and whether there is only one gang involved.

While the Zetas are the most powerful drug cartel in Tamaulipas, the state bordering Falcon Lake, small organizations associated with the Zetas may also be engaging in acts of piracy, says Jose Maria Ramos, a border relations expert at the Tijuana campus of COLEF.

Lack of extensive law enforcement on both sides of the border only helps breed insecurity, Mr. Ramos adds.

Security forces say cartels such as the Zetas are being forced to diversify into theft and piracy as the drug war chokes off trafficking profits, although not all experts buy that explanation. Instead, says Ramos, cartels are constantly establishing new drug trafficking routes into the United States that at times follow immigrant and even tourist paths.

These inevitably lead to conflict.

Lack of cross-border coordination

Before the Hartley case there seemed to have been little or no action taken by Mexican authorities on the robberies, and even less coordination with local US law enforcement. There had never before been reports of robberies on Falcon Lake or security concerns voiced by US law enforcement to local Mexican officials, according to the Tamaulipas prosecutor's office.

The Mexico City headquarters of the Federal Attorney General’s Office said it has not been involved in any Falcon Lake cases as robbery and murder are state crimes.

The US Department of Homeland Security says it is in touch with Mexican authorities about Hartley. “We understand that Mexican authorities are engaging in the search effort and the US government has offered our assistance in that search,” spokesman Matt Chandler said in a statement.

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