Mexican Government Completes PR Investigation of U.S. Agent’s Murder

Suspects Now in Custody Smell Like Scapegoats, Law Enforcement Sources Contend

Earlier this week, the Mexican government detained and paraded before the media a group of individuals it claims are responsible for the Feb. 15 attack in Mexico on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents — one of whom was shot to death and the other wounded in the assault.

Among the nine individuals now in custody, and the alleged ringleader of the group, is Julian “El Piolín” Zapata Espinoza, a supposed low-level member of the Zetas, a paramilitary nacro-trafficking organization that is active in the region where the ICE agents were attacked. Zapata Espinoza claims, according to press reports, that the U.S. agents’ SUV (which was sporting diplomatic plates) was mistakenly attacked because the Zeta hit men mistook it as a vehicle used by a rival narco-trafficking group.

The arrest of the supposed Zeta thugs by the Mexican Army, announced on Feb. 23, about a week after the assault on the U.S. agents, seems quite convenient, given the extreme media-generated pressure on both the Mexican and U.S. governments to solve the case. The swiftness of the arrests, particularly given the extensive narco-corruption in Mexico (and the fact that the autopsy on the murdered ICE agent was performed in Mexico, reportedly against he wishes of the U.S. government), has led some law enforcement sources who have spoken to Narco News, and to other media, to question whether those arrested are merely media scapegoats.

The two ICE agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila, were attacked by a group of armed men on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 15, while traveling in a U.S. government-owned vehicle on Mexican Highway 57 near Santa Maria del Rio, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi — located about midway between Monterrey to the north and Mexico City to the south.

Narco News’ original reports, published within hours of the assault on the ICE agents, indicated that law enforcement sources suspected that the Zetas were responsible for the attack. Subsequent media reports have echoed that suspicion.

In fact, the Brownsville Herald in South Texas, reported within days of the attack that an alliance of narco-trafficking groups “issued a statement” alleging that members of the Zetas were, in fact, responsible for the attack on the ICE agents.

That statement, contrary to the claim now being advanced by the suspects recently detained by the Mexican Army, contends, according to the Brownsville Herald report, that the attack was a purposeful act targeting the ICE agents and ordered by “Zeta lieutenant Jesus Enrique “El Mamito” Rejón Aguilar, who targeted Americans.”

According to multiple media reports, Rejón Aguilar is a former member of an elite Mexican Army unit dubbed the Special Forces Airmobile Group, or GAFE in its Spanish initials. The U.S. State Department has an outstanding reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

In fact, among the leadership of the Zetas are more than a few former Mexican special forces soldiers, including the presumed No. 1 Zeta leader now, Heriberto Lazcano-Lazcano, aka “El Verdugo” (the Executioner) — who also was a former member of Mexico’s GAFE special ops unit.

However, the GAFE influence in the Zetas, though present, is far from dominant in terms of the number and range of recruits. One former high-ranking DEA source, who spoke with Narco News in 2005, when the Zetas were just beginning to command the media’s attention, spells out that reality.

From a Narco News story published May 28, 2005:

A former DEA officials who worked extensively south of the border during his career explains:

“A lot of the Zetas came from former Mexican police officers or the military, and some are even students from universities in Texas that work part time with the Zetas to provide security. So they come from a diverse background. Some of them have prior training from the DEA, FBI and the U.S. military, as well as other agencies. We go to great lengths to assure they are not engaged in criminal activity before training them, but later on they can be lured into drug business by the money. It happens … And they (the Zetas) are very organized and have recruiters, who are out constantly bringing in new people and training them.”

Into the Belly of the Beast

So the Zetas, arguably a now dominate force in the narco-trafficking business in the Americas, appear to have broad reach both within Mexico, particularly with respect to the military and law enforcement, and even across the border into the U.S.

And the two ICE agents on the day they were attacked were driving into the belly of that beast, in a U.S. government SUV, with diplomatic plates, and using Nextel wireless phones, according to ICE sources, that at one point during the attack failed to operate properly. Yes, that’s right, the latest information coming to Narco News from law enforcement sources is that the ICE agents’ phones were “off line” during the initial stages of the attack, and that a call for help did not get out until after the agents had been shot.

Now, the explanation for such a phone failure could be as simple as a dead spot in cell coverage. 

Sources familiar with the situation in Mexico contend it is possible, though, that the Zetas, given their corrupt reach, have access to sophisticated communications blocking technology of the sort typically associated with sensitive military operations and may well have used such a device in the attack on the ICE agents.

“Counter RF [radio frequency] containment measures could have been employed,” one source explains. “Devices could have been employed that would have prevented the cellular phone communications links in that vehicle from emitting a signal that could be properly received at the intended location.”

If that turns out to be true, it would represent even more evidence that the assault was far from a mistake, but rather a high-level, coordinated effort designed specifically to target U.S. government agents.

The motive for such a targeting operation, at this point, simply is not clear.

At least one source in the intelligence world suspects the Zetas were after the payload (communications equipment) that was being transported by the ICE agents from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. However, other sources contend U.S. officials, absent sheer incompetence, would never move truly sensitive cargo through the heart of Zeta territory absent adequate security — which would involve more than two unarmed ICE agents driving in broad daylight in a SUV sporting diplomatic plates.

Other intelligence and law enforcement sources who spoke with Narco News, however, argue the purposeful attack on the ICE agents could signal a larger change in the assumptions of the drug war.

They contend the agents may well have been attacked to send a signal to the U.S. government that its people inside Mexico are now considered legitimate targets in the drug war given the extent of the United States’ involvement there and its expanding assistance — both monetary [the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative] and in the form of intelligence and personnel. In other words, due to the extent of the narco-corruption within Mexican law enforcement, the military and the government generally, no one playing in that arena, including U.S. agents offering aid and comfort to those forces, is now considered off limits — if that assistance is deemed to be aiding a rival or directed at assuring the demise of Zeta leadership and/or operations.

And, if you think about it, what do the top leaders of the Zetas, like Rejón Aguilar or Lazcano-Lazcano, have to lose in taking that approach, given they already are targets, dead or alive, of both the U.S. and Mexican governments?

It is difficult to know, with any degree of certainty, the truth in these matters when it comes to the drug war and the fluid lines that mark its boundaries.

However, it is curious that a series of State Department cables drafted by the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, (ground zero for the Zetas) and made public in recent weeks by WikiLeaks, have received virtually no press attention.

The leaked cables describe in shocking detail the corrupt reach of the Zetas in the very geography where ICE agent Jaime Zapata was murdered. Given that reality, it is difficult to accept on its face the word of the Mexican government with respect to the investigation into that homicide — particularly given the fact that one of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaksstates states plainly that, in Zeta country, the Mexican “authorities … lack the forensic capability needed to identify victims and, presumably, to conduct thorough crime scene investigations.”

Somehow, I suspect the “it was all a mistake” narrative now being pushed by Mexican officials to explain ICE agent Zapata’s murder also doesn’t sit well with U.S. agents serving in the field in Mexico, who must now suspect, due to blowback from misguided U.S. policies in the region, there no longer is any such thing as U.S. diplomatic immunity when it comes to the drug war.

The Monterrey Cables

Following, for your reading pleasure kind readers, is a sampling of Zeta reality from the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, courtesy of WikiLeaks:  

• From a State Department cable created 4/27/2007:

During a recent drug cartel raid, the Nuevo Leon State Police had recovered a video hidden within a stash of money. The Governor said that the video showed an unidentified man, wearing only a bloody undershirt and underwear, saying that [Nuefo Leon] Governor Gonzalez's Chief of Staff, Rogelio Cerda, was a corrupt official in the pockets of the drug cartels. According to the Governor, the unidentified man also said that some of the highest ranking members of the Mexican government are on the narco-traffickers' payroll, and specifically mentioned Mexican Secretary of Defense, Gen. Guillermo Galvan, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. … When asked where the tape was, [Nuevo Leon] Governor Gonzalez said that he had shown it to President Calderon in Mexico City and that the President had immediately called Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha and told him to launch an investigation.

• From a State Department cable created 1/29/09:

Some analysts worry, however, that the situation will get worse before it gets better as given the upcoming gubernatorial, state, and local elections they think that narco-money will inevitably find its way into the campaigns. For its part, Monterrey's private sector is working with local government to use technology to increase security. Despite the improvements, the constant refrain among citizens across the economic spectrum is that they remain fearful of reporting crimes because of their continued lack of confidence in the police.

… Often the police simply do not have the necessary resolve to respond to incidents involving organized crime. Ultimately, the degree to which the C-4/C-5 [urban surveillance] centers make a difference in that regard may depend upon the human factor — i.e., the reliability of those entrusted with monitoring the cameras. If organized crime can corrupt the monitors and/or their supervisors to gain access to the data, then it too will be a beneficiary of the centers' technology.

• From a State Department cable created 6/05/09:

In ongoing operations, 74 police officers, including some high-ranking officials, have been detained by the Mexican military for ties to organized crime.

• From a State Department cable created 6/03/09:

In a recent conversation Nuevo Leon's chief public security aide told post officials that after nearly two years in office he was leaving the state in better shape than he found it. However, he added, significant amounts of work would need to be done by his successor before Nuevo Leon could rely on state/local police to confront organized crime.

Indeed, offering `plata o plomo' [silver or lead, a bribe] narco-traffickers were easily able to recruit allies among the law enforcement community, as the authorities had no capacity to protect officers threatened during the course of their official duties.

• From a State Department cable created 7/27/09:

… While the army had been a key participant in the recent arrests of narco-corrupted police in the Monterrey region … the military suffered from the same fractures and pressures as every other element within the Mexican law enforcement community. While public approval of the army's performance was high, the military still needed to be wary of corruption and ineptitude within its ranks.

• From a State Department cable created 10/30/2009:

During the past few weeks, Consul General spoke with the mayors of four Monterrey region municipalities, all of whom expressed relief that their terms were ending October 31 given the pressure they were under from organized crime. Rafael Paz, the Mayor of Santiago, a suburban city south of Monterrey, painted the clearest picture of the situation he had faced.

He stated that during his three year term he:

• Had been threatened by narco-traffickers in the presence of the written and broadcast press;

• Had been confronted by an armed group of narco-gunmen which burst into his city hall office demanding that he stop resisting their demands. (Per the Mayor, he was told “they're 200 of us and only 9 on you security detail; who do you think is going to win?”);

• Had the military raid a kidnapper's safe house several doors away from his home; and

• Had received telephone threats from the Zetas threatening to kill him and take his decapitated head to his wheelchair bound spouse.

Paz recognized that his police force had been thoroughly penetrated by the narco-traffickers, pointing out that his municipal Secretary for Public Security had been detained by military and state authorities and had subsequently confessed.

• From a State Department cable created 11/06/09:

On November 4, gunmen ambushed and killed the police chief of the Monterrey suburb of Garcia. Unconfirmed DEA sources identified at least one of the attackers as a member of Los Zetas. This is the latest in the drug cartels' endemic intimidation and violence campaign against public officials that includes mayors of Monterrey's suburbs and police officials (in particular, retired military officers) in Nuevo Leon and Coahuila.

• From a State Department Cable created 12/14/09:

Cartels have continued to operate with impunity in Nuevo Leon. [Zeta leader] Ricardo Almanza (El Gori 1) moved openly in a large convoy throughout the Monterrey metropolitan area for a month after being named the prime suspect behind the assassination of the Garcia police chief, the state was unable to stop a major prison break despite having already been alerted to intense criminal activity in the area, and organized criminals operated a stolen car ring in broad view on state property. Authorities also lack the forensic capability needed to identify victims and, presumably, to conduct thorough crime scene investigations.

• From a State Department cable created 2/26/10:

… Zeta influence here [Nuevo Leon] is longstanding and widespread throughout local and state government. Gang members hung the recently discovered narcobanners in at least one area, near the Palacio del Gobierno, under state police observation. RSO sources indicated that state police officers' calls for backup went unheeded. Post has long connected former Nuevo Leon Director General of State Investigation Hector Santos (now serving in the same post in Coahuila) with the Zetas, and many other local and state police and government officials have ties to organized crime.

• And, finally, from a State Department cable issued by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City on 1/20/09:

A mid-level Mexican army major [Arturo Gonzalez Rodriguez] was arrested in late December 2008 for assisting drug traffickers and providing them with limited information about the activities and travel plans of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. According to an informant, the cartels were using the information to avoid heightened security around the president, not to target him personally. The arrest represents the most serious security breach to date but is not surprising given high-level civilian Government of Mexico (GOM) corruption charges over the past six months. … Although the major was not part of the president's inner circle, it also shows that the cartels succeeded in infiltrating a significant area of the GOM's security apparatus.

… The second unsettling aspect of the case is that Gonzalez apparently had been on the cartel payroll since 2005, during which time he held different positions in the government. As he changed assignments, he was kept on as a cartel asset, and the nature of his involvement with the cartels changed. It is entirely feasible that he fed information on other departments of the army (not just the Presidential Protective Division) over the course of his three-year relationship with the cartels. …One source advised that Calderon's medical file was passed to a DTO [drug-trafficking organization] by a corrupt member of Calderon's inner circle.

Welcome to the Narcosphere.

Stay tuned….

UPDATE: 11:37 PM Eastern — Two More Suspects Arrested

About a half hour ago, an Associated Press story came across the wires indicating that two more suspects have been arrested by Mexican authorities in connection with the murder of U.S. ICE agent Jaime Zapata.

The story offers few details as to how the suspects are connected to the murder other than indicating that one of the suspects, Sergio Mora, is the alleged “boss” of Zeta soldier Julian “El Piolín” Zapata Espinoza, who was detained earlier this week, as mentioned above. The other suspect, Luis Rojo, is somehow connected to Jesus Enrique “El Mamito” Rejón Aguilar, the former GAFE member and Zeta leader mentioned above who has been identified by rivals of the Zetas as the individual who ordered the murder.

From the AP report:

Neither official statement specified how the suspects were involved in the attack on the U.S. agents, other than saying that Mora gave orders to Zapata Espinoza and Rojo was suspected of handling the cartel's finances in the region.

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