EDITOR'S NOTE: Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars. The opinion expressed by the author is that of her own and does not represent that of CNN.
By Sylvia Longmire, Special to CNN
The news emerging from Mexico on August 24, 2012, sounded more like a spy thriller than the usual reports of shootings, body dumps, and decapitations. Initial reports were foggy, but it was sounding more and more like two Americans assigned to the US Embassy had been ambushed by criminals while on their way to a Mexican naval training base. As more details started trickling in, the scenario became more and more disturbing; the two wounded Embassy employees, according to published reports in Mexico, may have been CIA agents on a joint counterdrug mission, and their attackers were Mexican federal police officers. The CIA has not commented on the matter.
Making matters worse is the fact that the agents, along with a Mexican naval officer, were unarmed and traveling in a heavily armored SUV clearly bearing diplomatic license plates—something that was impossible for the attackers to miss. Mexican government officials claim it was “an accident” and a “case of mistaken identity,” as the 12 officers involved were supposedly in the area hunting down kidnappers. Yet, they were all wearing civilian clothes, according to a Mexican military official’s accounts to CNN, and traveling in different unmarked cars. They were also likely not carrying their standard-issue weapons; some Mexican media outlets indicated AK-47 shell casings were found at the scene of the shooting.
Several journalists from both Mexican and American news outlets have interviewed witnesses and residents in the small town where this occurred just north of Cuernavaca, and they all said the same thing: alleging that federal police in that area are working with the cartels. Some witnesses also said that the CIA agents traveled that road frequently, and people had become used to seeing armored vehicles with the diplomatic plates, making the case of mistaken identity harder to swallow.
It’s becoming harder and harder to argue that the agents weren’t specifically targeted by a criminal group in the area, perhaps not to kill them outright, but to send a very strong message. But why would Mexican drug traffickers violate an old unspoken rule about avoiding confrontations with US agents because of the negative consequences they tend to bring? History tells us this wouldn’t be the first time this has happened, or even the second.
In March 2010, Drug Administration Agent (DEA) Special Agent Joe DuBois told the Houston Chronicle the following disturbing account. During a November 1999 afternoon, he and FBI Special Agent Daniel Fuentes were driving through the northeast Mexican city of Matamoros in a white Ford Bronco bearing diplomatic license plates. In the back of the Bronco was an informant; a Mexican reporter who was showing the agents various cartel members’ homes in the area, as well as stash houses where illegal drugs were kept prior to being smuggled into the US. One of those homes belonged to the notorious Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, head of the Gulf cartel at the time.
Shortly after the three men drove by, they picked up a tail, were boxed in and forced to stop. Cárdenas himself emerged from one of the vehicles and approached the Bronco. He demanded that the agents surrender and turn over the informant, and the agents refused after Fuentes clearly identified himself as FBI. Cárdenas also clearly indicated he didn’t care who the agents were. After DuBois calmly explained at length what the consequences would be if he and Fuentes were killed—referring to the full might of US law enforcement—Cárdenas gave the order to his men to lower their weapons.
Fast-forward 12 years later to February 15, 2011. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were on their way back to Mexico City after meeting with ICE staff in Monterrey, where they were picking up some “sensitive equipment” for transport, according to several published reports. They were driving in an armored Chevrolet Suburban with diplomatic license plates when two vehicles filled with members of Los Zetas boxed them in and forced off the road. Hoping that their status as US law enforcement agents would prevent a violent confrontation, Zapata and Avila cracked the window, showed their identification and repeated that they were Americans and diplomats. The attackers used expletives in their “we don’t care” response, per a Houston Chronicle account, shoved an automatic rifle through the window crack, and started to fire. Both agents were hit, Zapata fatally.
Three deadly incidents in Mexico involving US agents under diplomatic cover over the span of 13 years doesn’t seem like much. However, the last two in particular are real cause for concern. Agents Fuentes and DuBois were armed, if severely outgunned, back in 1999. These days, US personnel in Mexico aren’t authorized to carry firearms of any kind. Zapata, Avila, Jesse Garner, and Stan Bosswere all in fully armored SUVs with clearly identifiable diplomatic license plates. However, their attackers—regardless of cartel or law enforcement affiliation—clearly did not care that these men were US government representatives.
So what do US officials traveling in Mexico need to start doing to protect themselves, if armored cars are acting more as a target than a deterrent? Should they travel in convoys, like in Iraq and Afghanistan? At a meeting in March 2011, President Obama and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderón stressed that US agents in Mexico cannot be armed. Despite US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano agreeing to discuss the issue “in a more classified setting” and US Attorney General Eric Holder saying Zapata’s murder may prompt him to ask Mexico to revise that policy that policy has not changed. Would things have played out differently in the August 24 attack if it had? Should US agents avoid driving on Mexican highways altogether? It’s still unclear 18 months later why Zapata and Avila were making a 20-hour round-trip drive through very dangerous cartel territory instead of flying, unless the “sensitive equipment” they were picking up couldn’t be transported by plane.
US agents working for the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have been working in Mexico alongside Mexican authorities for decades, so they understand the ebb and flow of the security situation in different parts of Mexico. But now Mexican law prohibits these agents from carrying weapons to defend themselves in dangerous situations. In July 2012, Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto implied in a Washington Post interview that he does not support the presence of armed US agents in Mexico.
This latest incident clearly highlights the real threats to American agents operating in Mexico, regardless of whether they’re there to train others, act as liaisons, or work at diplomatic facilities. Not only can they not rely on Mexican law enforcement for protection; now they have to protect themselves from corrupt police. While the evidence isn’t conclusive that US agents are being deliberately and systematically targeted by crime groups (yet), it is clear that their ability to conduct their various missions in Mexico is being directly impacted by cartel operations.
Just being American is no longer the shield against cartel violence that it used to be, and the unwillingness of Obama and Napolitano to press the Mexican government to allow US agents to defend themselves with more than just harsh language is unacceptable. The level of financial, logistical, and training support the US government is providing Mexico should be leveraged to fight for the ability of agents to arm themselves, and travel in American-manned armored motorcades if necessary. Unless more aggressive security procedures like these are followed, our diplomatic and law enforcement personnel operating south of the border will be viewed by cartels like they are by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan—sitting ducks.