A U.S. immigration agent who was killed Tuesday in a part of central Mexico increasingly under the influence of drug traffickers has been identified as Jaime J. Zapata. Zapata was shot to death and another special agent was wounded when they were apparently ambushed by gunmen at a fake roadblock, the type often used by traffickers and their henchmen.
U.S. Immigration and Customs officials said Wednesday that Zapata was a native of Brownsville, Texas, and four-year veteran of the department on loan from the Laredo, Texas, ICE office. He and the second agent, whose name was not released, were attached temporarily to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
The pair were driving from Mexico City toward the northern city of Monterrey when they were attacked in the state of San Luis Potosi, U.S. authorities said.
The agents “were shot in the line of duty while driving between Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, by unknown assailants,” ICE said in a statement.
“ICE is working with the U.S. State Department, Mexican authorities and other U.S. law enforcement partners to investigate the shooting,” the agency added.
Although the agents were reported initially to have survived the attack, ICE Director John Morton announced later that one of the men had succumbed to his wounds.
“This is a difficult time for ICE and especially for the families and loved ones of our agents,” Morton said in a statement.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the second agent was in stable condition with gunshot wounds to an arm and leg.
The Mexican government offered condolences and issued a statement “energetically condemning this grave act of violence.” It pledged cooperation in assisting the injured agent, who presumably was to be evacuated from the regional hospital where he was being treated, and in helping to resolve the case.
There were conflicting reports on exactly where in San Luis Potosi state the agents were shot. Several Mexican sources put the shooting on Highway 57 between the cities of Queretaro and San Luis Potosi, roughly a third of the way from Mexico City to Monterrey. The attack occurred about 3 p.m.
Gunmen apparently blocked the road, placing their vehicles across the highway and forcing the agents to a stop. Then they opened fire.
San Luis Potosi traditionally had not been tormented by the same level of drug-war violence plaguing other parts of the country. But in the last year, members of the notorious Zetas gang have been moving in from adjoining Tamaulipas state to seize more territory, market and drug routes. They often set up “narco-blockades,” or fake checkpoints, to impede the movements of law enforcement or other enemies.
Many of the roadways leading to Monterrey, Mexico’s wealthiest city, have become exceedingly dangerous in recent months with narco-blockades, shootouts and other violence. There was no immediate indication that the federal agents attacked Tuesday were driving with any sort of extra security.
Despite a ruthless drug war in Mexico among rival cartels and government security forces that has killed more than 34,000 people in four years, it is rare for U.S. officials to come under attack.
On March 13, an officer at the U.S. Consulate in the border city of Ciudad Juarez was shot to death along with her husband and the husband of another consular officer as they drove in two separate cars from a children’s birthday party. They were headed home to El Paso, just across the border. A local drug gang was implicated in the shootings.
The presence in Mexico of U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and military officials has been growing substantially as Washington deepens its involvement in the drug war.
In Mexico, ICE investigates human trafficking, firearms smuggling and intellectual property cases, among other issues. The agency has between 25 and 30 agents in the country. Agents also have worked with the government to train Mexicans in advanced investigative techniques used in customs and smuggling investigations.
Napolitano vowed that Tuesday’s attack would not diminish U.S. participation in Mexico’s drug war.
“Let me be clear: Any act of violence against our ICE personnel — or any [Department of Homeland Security] personnel — is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety,” she said in a statement. “We remain committed in our broader support for Mexico’s efforts to combat violence within its borders.”
Times staff writers Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau and Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.