Is Mexico Becoming the New Iraq for American Agents?
By Sylvia Longmire
The news emerging from Mexico on August 24, 2012, sounded more like narrative from 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 Embassy employees were actually CIA agents on a joint counterdrug mission, and their attackers were Mexican federal police officers.
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, traveling in different unmarked cars, and not carrying their standard-issue weapons, if the AK-47 shell casings found at the scene of the shooting are any indication of what they were carrying.
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: everyone knows the 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.
During a November 1999 afternoon, FBI agent Daniel Fuentes and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Joe DuBois 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 were 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. 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, 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, Garner, and Boss were 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? President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made it clear they would not be revising their policy of prohibiting US personnel from carrying weapons in Mexico. Should they 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 Drug Enforcement Administration (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. Two weeks after ICE agent Zapata was killed, both President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón said US agents in Mexico would remain unarmed. In July 2012, Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto said in an interview that he was ruling out the possibility of changing this policy.
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.
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.