MEXICO CITY — The roadside killing of a U.S. agent and the wounding of a second left investigators weighing Wednesday whether the shooting was random or a targeted hit by criminal gangs involved in the surge of drug-related violence in Mexico.
Armed assailants sprayed gunfire at a dark-blue, armored Chevrolet Suburban Tuesday afternoon that was carrying two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents along an arid stretch of highway flanked by cactus-covered hills near San Luis Potosi, about 250 miles north of the capital.
Agent Jaime J. Zapata died of his gunshot wounds. A second agent, not immediately identified, was air evacuated to the U.S. for treatment of two gunshot wounds to the leg, ICE said in a statement.
"May the work we continue to do as an agency be worthy of a sacrifice as great as the one made by Special Agent Zapata," ICE Director John Morton said.
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A memorial website for Zapata said he and the second agent were traveling between Monterrey, an industrial hub in the north, and Mexico City "when they were forced off the road by 10 members of a Mexican drug cartel. The agents were in an armored vehicle with diplomatic plates and identified themselves as diplomats."
"The cartel members opened fire on them, fatally wounding Agent Zapata and wounding the second agent," said the Officer Down Memorial Page website.
The shooting marked the first killing of a U.S. agent in Mexico since the 1985 torture-murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena. That murder led to tensions in U.S.-Mexico relations and greater pressure on high-ranking Mexican drug lords.
In Washington, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder established an FBI-led joint task force to help solve the crime. The Mexican Attorney General's Office also deployed prosecutors from an organized crime unit to the scene.
"The pressure is going to be really strong to solve this case," said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst with the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in the capital.
Whether diplomatic license plates were visible on the Suburban may be crucial to uncovering a motive of the assailants.
"If they saw the license plates, then they knew who they were attacking," Chabat said, and if they fired anyway, it shows that the gangsters have as little fear of U.S. authorities as they do of Mexican authorities.
The two ICE agents were reportedly unarmed, which is standard practice for U.S. immigration, customs and drug enforcement agents working in Mexico.
Several U.S. analysts said the killing might have been a random act at an unofficial roadblock operated by drug gangsters to steal expensive vehicles.
Carjacking by cartel gunmen is routine in northern Mexico, where gangsters mobilize hit men in fleets of stolen SUVs and pick-ups. The assailants sometimes dress as police officers and travel in official-looking vehicles. Earlier this week, Mexico's army released photos of "cloned" police and army vehicles used by the cartels in Sonora state.
Late last month, gunmen from the Los Zetas criminal gang fired on a Chevrolet pickup, apparently seeking to steal the vehicle, killing U.S. missionary Nancy Davis.
Roderic Camp, a Mexico specialist at Claremont McKenna College in California, said he doubts the killers targeted the agents intentionally.
"I don't see any evidence yet that they knew who was in the vehicle," Camp said.
"It really appears that it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for the agents and that it was really a case of low-level cartel gunmen responding to encountering two U.S. law-enforcement agents," wrote Scott Stewart of the Stratfor security affairs monitoring firm in Austin, Texas.
However, U.S. officials cautioned that it's too early to come to any conclusions.
Zapata, 34, was a native of Brownsville, Texas, and began his law enforcement career as a member of the Border Patrol in Arizona.
In 2006, Zapata moved within the Department of Homeland Security to the ICE office in Laredo, Texas, where he served on a unit combating human smuggling and on a border security task force, the agency said. Recently, he was reassigned to the ICE attache office at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
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