U.S. Agent’s Killing Hints at Drug-War Tensions

The dreaded phone call came in at the U.S. embassy during a baking-hot Mexico City afternoon on Feb. 15. Special agent Victor Avila reported that he and his partner were under attack after a dozen gunmen surrounded them on a central Mexican highway; both agents had taken hits, and Avila was watching scores of other shells bounce off their armor-plated Suburban. It was this cry for help that saved Avila’s life. American officials contacted their drug-war allies in the Mexican federal police, who swept the area, making the gunmen flee, and airlifted the agents to a hospital. Avila survived after two bullets were removed from his legs. But his colleague Jaime Zapata died from his wounds and is due to be buried with honors Tuesday in his native Brownsville, Texas — both Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are expected to attend the funeral.

President Obama personally called Zapata’s family to offer his condolences, which underscored the grim milestone. Zapata’s killing marks the first murder of an American agent in the line of duty in Mexico’s drug war, which has raged relentlessly since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and declared an unprecedented attack on cartels. As such, it adds extra pressure to the already strained U.S.-Mexico drug-war alliance. (See pictures of Mexico’s drug tunnels.)

Publicly, the Calderón and Obama administrations have continued to paint a rosy picture of the U.S. and Mexico marching side by side to defeat the common adversary of drug cartels. But as revealed in WikiLeaks cables and offhand comments by officials on both sides of the border, tensions are growing. U.S. officials complain that they cannot completely rely on Mexico’s institutions — and this concern is exacerbated when their lives are on the line. For their part, Mexicans protest that they suffer from failed American policies on drugs and guns. The Obama Administration’s recent refusal to fast-track new reporting requirements for assault-weapon sales along the Mexican border only added to their frustration.

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