By DANE SCHILLER, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
The mission was supposed to be a textbook "controlled delivery" - a routine trap by law enforcement officers using a secret operative posing as a truck driver to bust drug traffickers when their narcotics are delivered to a rendezvous point.
Instead, things spun out of control. Shortly before the marijuana delivery was to be made Monday afternoon, three sport-utility vehicles carrying Zetas cartel gunmen seemingly came out of nowhere and cut off the tanker truck as it rumbled through northwest Harris County, sources told the Chronicle.
They sprayed the cab with bullets, killing the civilian driver, who was secretly working with the government. A sheriff's deputy, who was driving nearby in another vehicle, was wounded, possibly by friendly fire.
The Chronicle has learned that investigators believe the deputy's shooting was the result of confusing radio communications between the multiple agencies that responded. Some of the arriving officers may have thought the deputy was one of the culprits when in fact he was a member of the surveillance team watching the truck.
For some at the scene, it seemed all too similar to what has been playing out in Mexico, where drug cartels operate with near impunity as they clash with each other and with the military and police.
"We are not going to tolerate these types of thugs out there using their weapons like the Wild, Wild West," said Javier Pena, the new head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston Division. "We are going after them."
A load of pot
"Everybody is surprised at the brazenness," Pena continued as he stressed a full court press by the DEA, the sheriff and police. "We haven't seen this type of violence, which concerns us."
Sources discussed aspects of the shoot-out on the condition that they not be identified publicly due to the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
A contingent of law-enforcement officers had been covertly shadowing the truck as it eased its way through the Houston area to deliver a load of marijuana fresh from the Rio Grande Valley.
Officers open fire
As the gunmen attacked, officers quickly jumped into the fray and also opened fire on the attackers. The truck kept rolling until it careened off the roadway and came to a halt.
Dozens of law-enforcement officers descended on the scene as well as fanned out in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Four suspects, all believed to be citizens of Mexico, were arrested and charged Monday with capital murder in connection with the shooting.
They are Eric De Luna, 23; Fernando Tavera, 19; Ricardo Ramirez, 35 and Rolando Resendiz, 34.
Full recovery expected
The sheriff's deputy, who has not yet been identified publicly, was hit in the knee during the melee, which involved several cars and guns.
The eight-year veteran was expected to spend Thursday night in the hospital, but make a full recovery.
Christina Garza, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, said much of the inci- dent remains under investigation, including who shot the deputy and the driver.
"Until we get that forensic analysis back we won't know for sure," she said. "There were several people firing weapons. As for who shot who, that is still under investigation."
Authorities would not discuss how the deceased driver, who in addition to being a confidential informant and holding a job as a commercial truck driver, first made contact with the traffickers.
Not the wisest choice
While some of the arrested attackers have allegedly admitted to an affiliation with the Mexico-based Zetas, authorities said they are trying to determine why such a bold and risky attack was launched over just 300 pounds of marijuana.
Sources, who concede this case is especially puzzling, said that if the Zetas had learned the truck driver was an informant and wanted him dead, there were smarter ways to get him, rather than risk an assault on a truck watched so closely by law enforcement.
"If it was a straight assassination, there were points in this controlled delivery where he would have just been a sitting duck," said a law-enforcement source speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A theory being closely looked at is that someone from the drug underworld knew what the truck looked like and knew where it was going, and decided to get crew together to stage a rip-off, but thought much more marijuana was hidden in the truck.
"Pretty brazen to kill a man over 300 pounds of grass," the law-enforcement source said.