TERRY WALLACE, Associated Press
DALLAS (AP) — Three people suspected of smuggling guns to Mexico were arrested in a Dallas suburb on Monday after federal investigators traced the gun used in the killing of a U.S. agent in Mexico to one of them, officials said.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested the suspected gun smugglers in morning raids in the southern Dallas suburb of Lancaster, Texas, ATF spokesman Tom Crowley said. Crowley referred questions on other details to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. A department spokeswoman said no statement was planned for Monday.
The ATF said the gun was used in a Feb. 15 shooting of two federal agents who were driving on a highway near the northern city of San Luis Potosi on Feb. 15. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was killed and agent Victor Avila was wounded.
Dangers higher for federal agents
By Jason Buch
As they cruised the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, with an informant in November 1999, a pair of U.S. federal agents were forced off the road and surrounded by cartel gunmen.
In what has become a legendary showdown between U.S. agents and narcos, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Joe Dubois and FBI agent Daniel Fuentes talked their way out of the jackpot, convincing the gunmen — including Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén — that harming them would bring down the wrath of the United States.
That incident stands in stark contrast to the Feb. 15 attack on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Presumed cartel gunmen forced Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila off the road in Mexico's San Luis Potosí state. Like Dubois and Fuentes, the two ICE agents reportedly tried to negotiate with the gunmen. But as soon as they cracked the window to parley, one of the gunmen shoved the barrel of his weapon into the car; Zapata was killed, and Avila was wounded.
Alleged members of the Zetas drug gang who have been accused of the killing said that although the agents were traveling in a vehicle with diplomatic license plates, they thought the men were rival cartel members. It was the first time in more than 20 years that a U.S. agent was killed in the line of duty in Mexico.
Those who follow U.S. law enforcement activity in Mexico and on the border say the danger to federal agents has increased since Dubois and Fuentes stood down the gunmen in Matamoros. Criminal organizations have grown beyond their leaders' control, and conflicts between cartels have become more frequent and more violent, raising the stakes for traffickers and making it more dangerous for federal agents.
Zapata's death comes on the heels of a Border Patrol agent's killing in Arizona, a suspected Guatemalan drug trafficker with ties to a Mexican cartel accused of offering money to kill U.S. agents in his country and the home invasion of an ICE agent in San Antonio.
“It is more dangerous now than it was 10 years ago,” said Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director of ICE. “(Mexican) President (Felipe) Calderón courageously tried to take on the cartels to break their impunity. Because of that action, unfortunately, a consequence has been that the cartels are fighting back. They're threatened by the government, and they're also threatened by rival cartels, and that has somewhat changed the landscape in terms of the violence.”
In the case of the San Antonio ICE agent, masked gunmen broke into his house near Shavano Park on Jan. 13. One of the men held his wife at gunpoint and groped her while the other ransacked the house, according to a police report.
Police say they're investigating the incident as a robbery. But Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, said evidence — the gunmen had their gloves taped to their jackets, they asked for the agent by name and they showed up at a time he was normally home — makes him believe that it wasn't a random robbery attempt.
“We definitely think this guy was targeted based on his job,” Crane said.
“I think that that's the direction this whole thing is headed in,” he added. “I think things are escalating. I think (the gangs) are getting a little bit more gutsy.”
In response to the attack on Avila and Zapata, U.S. law enforcement officials made raids across the country last week, seizing drugs and guns and making arrests.
The heads of criminal organizations on both sides of the border understand that attacking federal agents brings unwanted attention and intense law enforcement scrutiny and hurts their bottom line, said Ray Leal, a criminal justice and criminology professor at St. Mary's University.
But the organizations have grown so large that the bosses have trouble controlling their underlings, Leal said.
“It's like controlling a good-sized military force that's spread out over a large area of territory,” he said. “Who knows who's in charge?”
The fear of drawing U.S. attention isn't always a deterrent for high-level traffickers. Edgar Leonel Estrada Morales, who is accused of being a major pseudoephedrine supplier for Mexico's La Familia cartel, was arrested last month in Guatemala.
An indictment out of a federal court in Virginia accuses Estrada of trying to have two DEA agents and a U.S. Embassy employee in Guatemala killed. He offered $10,000 apiece for the killings, the indictment says.
But most of the recent incidents of violence against U.S. agents appear to involve low-level traffickers who are too quick to pull the trigger. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a December shootout with bandits in Arizona, and a Houston police officer was wounded Thursday as he helped federal agents serve warrants during retribution raids for Zapata's killing.
“We're looking at an increase (in violence),” Peña said. “When they feel like they're cornered or they're threatened, they're going to react.”