Mexican drug gang Zetas suspected in US special agent killing

The Mexico drug gang known for its brutal tactics is the initial suspect in Tuesday's attack on two US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Mexican and US security experts, some with inside information, suspect the Zetas in the killing of an American special agent this week, a prospect that could complicate investigations due to the Mexican drug gang's brutal yet sophisticated tactics.

Further knotting the matter, experts say it is not entirely clear if the gunmen were operating independently or on orders from commanders when they opened fire Tuesday on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents Jamie Zapata and Victor Avila, who were driven off the road between the violent city of Monterrey and Mexico City in the state of San Luis Potosí. Mr. Zapata died from his injuries, and Mr. Avila suffered leg wounds.

Washington swiftly announced the creation of an FBI-led task force from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to work with Mexico in its investigation.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Former ICE Deputy Director Alonzo Pena, who has knowledge of the investigation, says the Zetas gang is an initial suspect. He says investigators will need to exploit informants from rival drug cartels to lead them to those responsible, and will then go after all those who had “any role, any participation in that cowardly act."

“The Zetas have a lot of enemies,” Mr. Pena tells the Monitor from San Antonio, where he recently retired after working for ICE, including a stint as its Mexico City representative. “Hopefully their rivals will find ways to get information to us about them, about how they are operating.”

Hurdles to finding killers

However, he adds, the gang's well-known intimidation tactics of beheadings and gruesome killings, as well as their extensive weaponry, may make it difficult to convince potential informants to step forward.

Another hurdle for investigators might be the increasingly splintered nature of Mexico's gangs. President Felipe Calderón has waged a four-year military campaign that has successfully captured or killed a number of drug lords, breaking up some of their internal chain-of-command and causing splinter groups to form.

“There are cells that sometimes operate on their own and might’ve easily done something without asking for permission from above,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “It makes it both harder to track them down and harder to hold someone accountable.”

The Zetas gang may be especially elusive for that reason, as its once top-down military-like command morphed after the band of former soldiers began breaking away from the Gulf Cartel several years ago, experts say.

Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, told the Houston Chronicle that "ICE is trying to determine if these were Zetas operating in a rogue fashion or whether this was a hit sanctioned at the very highest levels of the cartel." He said in a statement that the US agents had identified themselves as diplomats, but were shot anyway, likely by Zetas. That account, however, has not been confirmed.

Zetas known to hire killers

The Zetas are known to form alliances with local gangs in several states and have in the past hired freelancers to do their dirty work, says Martin Barron, who trains federal investigators at the Mexican government’s National Institute of Criminal Science (Inacipe). Mr. Barron has also been researching street gang recruitment into cartels.

If a cell carried out Tuesday’s shooting without permission from Zetas command, their members may even be killed for “committing an error,” Barron says, which will throw investigators further off the scent. Barron noted that both Zetas and Gulf Cartel members are disputing territory in San Luis Potosí, the state where the shooting took place, and that either gang may be responsible.

Barron added that police whom he trained last month in San Luis Potosí reported to him constant intimidation by traffickers, who either kidnap officers to force them to cooperate or pay off investigators, which occurs in other states as well. This may also hinder investigations, he says.

On Thursday the US issued a restriction against travel by government officials to San Luis Potosí, which had been relatively calm until drug turf battles broke out in recent months.

Advice to Americans in Mexico: Be inconspicuous

A report by security group STRATFOR says the shooting may have been an attempted robbery of the agents’ armored Chevy Suburban, a similar model to that targeted in an attack last month on a US missionary couple in the Zeta stronghold of Tamaulipas. STRATFOR suggested that US officials use less conspicuous models.

Rules that forbade US agents like Zapata and Avila from carrying weapons in Mexico have also been called into question since the attack.

The Zetas have been recently suspected in a third alleged murder of an American, the September shooting of David Hartley on a border lake, reinforcing the gang’s reputation for inviting conflict and caring little about who they kill.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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