San Antonio Express-News
Members of the Mexican military search for David Hartley's body in Falcon Lake.
BROWNSVILLE — A global intelligence company Wednesday said the death of U.S. citizen David Michael Hartley on Falcon Lake was a case of mistaken identity in a turf war between rival drug cartels.
Hartley, who was shot during a Sept. 30 sightseeing trip to the Mexican side of the binational reservoir, was shot by Zeta cartel enforcers because he was mistaken for a spy of the rival Gulf Cartel, according to the report by STRATFOR, and Austin-based think tank specializing in intelligence and international issues.
The report goes on to say Hartley's body likely was destroyed as Los Zetas went into “damage control” mode and that the lower-level operatives responsible for the unauthorized strike against him now are on the Zetas' hit list.
“The cartel boss — Miguel Treviño — is highly upset over the fact that these individuals shot and killed Mr. Hartley and it's our understanding that the cartel boss is hunting for the killers of Mr. Hartley so he can take care of them himself,” said Fred Burton, STRATFOR's vice president of intelligence.
Burton, who doesn't cite his sources, goes on to say the beheading Tuesday of Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, the lead Mexican investigator in the case, was a stern signal to both the United States and Mexico that no body will be produced and to leave the situation alone.
Hartley's wife, Tiffany, has said the two were ambushed while taking pictures of a submerged Mexican town.
She said she raced to U.S. shores without her husband after a futile attempt to lift his body, the gunfire trailing her well across the U.S. line.
The case has drawn international attention, with Tiffany Hartley and her family appearing on various news shows defending her story of lake pirates and pleading for action amid a drug war that has Mexican officials paralyzed by fear.
Her mother, Cynthia Young, said the family had seen the STRATFOR report but had no comment yet on its findings.
“It hasn't been confirmed through the investigative officers here,” she said. “But we're still standing and believing for a miracle that we will get David back in some fashion and that's the way God wants it. But he's in charge.”
She said officials at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros, Mexico, had assured them Flores' decapitation wouldn't stop the search.
Burton is the author of two books: “Mexico in Crisis: Lost Borders and the Struggle for Regional Status” and “GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent.”
A former special agent in counterterroism for the U.S. State Department, he was appointed in 2007 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Border Security Council. He served briefly as the assistant director for intelligence and counterterrorism for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
His report concludes “halcones,” or Zeta scouts, noticed Mexican tags on the trailer towing the Hartley's personal watercraft, mistook them as spies for the rival Gulf Cartel and sent radio messages buzzing across the lake.
The couple had lived in Reynosa, Mexico, where Hartley worked for an Alberta-based oil company.
“Once Hartley was identified as an American, his body was destroyed the same day as the incident to prevent a backlash from the U.S. government against the group,” the report states.
As for the attackers, “a damage control campaign currently is under way — led by Los Zetas' No. 2, Miguel “Z-40” Treviño Morales — to identify and eliminate those who engaged the Hartleys.”
Treviño Morales is named in federal court documents as the No. 2 Zeta. He's wanted by Laredo police in five slayings they say he ordered in the U.S. during 2005 and 2006. He's also wanted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.
The U.S. State Department is offering $5 million and the Mexican government is offering 30 million pesos, about $2.4 million, for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
U.S. Coast Guard patrol on Falcon Lake
The death of the Mexican investigator in the case, meanwhile, produced an outcry Wednesday from several U.S. officials, most calling on the U.S. to get more active.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said Flores had a reputation for cooperation and camaraderie with law enforcement counterparts in Texas.
Cuellar's brother, Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, brokered a meeting last week with the Hartley family and investigators, including Flores.
“Commandante Flores and many of his peers had continued to search for David Hartley in the face of grave threats and imminent danger,” Rep. Cuellar said in a statement. “This tragic incident demonstrates the continued efforts of the Mexican law enforcement community to help us in America solve the Hartley case.”
He said the case underscores the need for the Mérida Initiative, an infusion of resources he supported to help Latin American nations fight the drug war.
But Republican politicians including Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn say the incident instead should be seen as a failure of the Obama administration to secure the nation's southern border.
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, accused the State Department of moving slowly in the investigation that has emboldened the narcotics cartels that he likened to terrorist groups.
Poe, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the United States would not be intimidated by the Zetas or other cartels.
“If anything, the United States ought to give more resources to this investigation,” he said.