The two federal agents were headed south along the four-lane highway, back to their post in Mexico City.
Special Agent Jaime Zapata was behind the wheel of an armored Chevrolet Suburban with U.S. diplomatic plates. His partner, Special Agent Victor Avila Jr. was in the passenger seat.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had met with fellow agents, who were based in Monterrey, along Mexico Highway 57 in the central state of San Luis Potosi to drop off equipment from the U.S. Embassy.
Zapata and Avila stopped at a Subway along the highway for lunch. As they left the restaurant, an SUV closed in on their Suburban from behind, tailing the agents.
Zapata tried to speed up, but the SUV kept pace and pulled up side-by-side. The passengers flashed assault rifles at the agents and sped ahead down the highway, out of sight.
A second vehicle came from behind, tailing the agents until they met the first SUV they’d seen minutes before.
The two vehicles had boxed in the agents on the highway and crawled to a stop. Gunmen surrounded the agents’ Suburban.
“They were screaming ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!,” one U.S. law enforcement official, briefed but unauthorized to speak on the case, told The Monitor.
That official and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who chairs the U.S. House Homeland Security and Investigations Oversight Subcommittee, told The Monitor of what investigators have surmised from the attack on the agents Tuesday afternoon.
The agents showed their U.S. diplomatic papers to the gunmen, showing they were federal agents. But the gunmen refused to relent.
Zapata shifted the vehicle in park, which automatically unlocked its doors. The gunmen tried to pull the agents from the vehicle. But they managed to close the doors.
Zapata’s window was open a crack, allowing the gunmen to stick an AK-47 assault rifle and a pistol through the opening. They “shot indiscriminately,” the official said, striking Zapata several times in the abdomen and Avila twice in the leg.
Mexican investigators recovered 83 bullet casings along the highway after the attack on the agents, McCaul said.
“That shows what a massive assault of these agents this was,” he said.
Still alert, Zapata put the Suburban in gear, managed to maneuver around the gunmen and hit the gas pedal. Minutes later, he slumped behind the wheel and the SUV slowed until it veered off the road into an embankment.
The gunmen followed and fired several shots at the passenger side of the armored vehicle. The bulletproof glass stood up to the rounds from the assault rifle.
Avila ducked in the passenger seat as Zapata was moments away from death. Apparently frustrated, the gunmen fled and Mexican police officers responded to the scene.
As investigators have believed since the hours after Zapata’s slaying, members of the Zetas drug cartel are likely behind the attack.
But whether any law enforcement — U.S. or Mexican — actually can track down those responsible seems unlikely, the official said.
“They will never catch these guys,” the official said of Zapata’s killers. “Their (Zeta) bosses are going to catch them and kill them, leave their heads on the side of the road with a note saying, 'Sorry, we killed these guys.' And that will be it.”
Tuesday’s attack prompted the U.S. State Department to urge Americans from unnecessary travel to San Luis Potosi state. The warning issued Thursday evening urged caution to U.S. citizens living in north central Mexico to maintain extra caution while the Mexican government investigates the attack.
‘A WAR GOING ON DOWN THERE’
McCaul contends the fatal attack has changed the rules for U.S. officials operating in Mexico, he said.
“They’re changing the rules of the game in terms of going after our guys down there,” McCaul said in a telephone interview Thursday.
McCaul is one of several U.S. lawmakers who has taken a critical tenor in the days after Zapata’s slaying.
Zapata’s murder was the first slaying of a U.S. law enforcement agent since 1985, when Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kike” Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and murdered.
The ensuing investigation from U.S. authorities pushed Mexican drug smugglers to not target American authorities operating south of the Rio Grande.
Whether the attack on the agents actually was a targeted hit remains unclear, McCaul said.
“For 25 years, there’s been a sort of operational understanding that this doesn’t happen,” he said. “They’ll go after Mexican police and other cartel members, but not U.S. law enforcement.”
But one Mexican lawmaker pointed to the U.S. demand for drugs as a contributing factor in the murder of Zapata and the approximately 35,000 others slain in drug violence since 2006.
Mexican representative Gustavo Gonzalez Hernandez, who heads the national security committee in the country’s house of representatives, said U.S. aid in fighting the drug war should focus on reducing consumption and not by fighting the war on Mexican soil.
“If the U.S. explains to its people that it is a joint problem, that it’s not the Mexicans who invented drugs and brought them to their country,” he said. “A demand evolved and a structure began that includes production and transportation.”
McCaul said the United States should consider a policy similar to Plan Colombia, which sent billions in aid directed toward eradicating that country’s drug trafficking organizations. First conceived in 1999, the program aimed to enhance social programs and train local police and soldiers.
“There’s a war going on down there and now American citizens and U.S. law enforcement are the victims of that war,” he said. “They’re not getting better, they’re getting worse and I’m very concerned about Mexico becoming some kind of failed state.”
But the Mexican people would not support a similar policy as the United States did with Colombia, said Gonzalez, who represents Jalisco state.
“That would not (work),” Gonzalez said. “It would be an invasion of Mexican sovereignty and independent of the feeling of anger that Americans may have, (any action) cannot be outside the context of Mexican law and only what is allowed under the constitution.”
Funeral arrangements for Zapata remained pending Thursday evening.
The 32-year-old Brownsville native’s remains were at the Dover Air Force Base for an autopsy, said a government source unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter. His remains were diverted to the Delaware base after a medical examiner in Houston refused to perform the exam, saying state law prohibits autopsies on remains recovered outside the United States, the Houston Chronicle reported. When Zapata’s remains would be flown to Brownsville was unclear.
Zapata’s family remained secluded in their Brownsville home on Thursday.