MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The black SUV with bullet-ridden windows and blood-stained seats bore the same signs as thousands of execution-style hits that have rattled Mexico in recent months.
But when the bleeding victims were identified as American agents and one died in hospital, a ripple of reactions spread rapidly from Mexico’s presidential palace to the White House.
The incident marks the most high-profile attack on American special agents working south of the border since gangsters kidnapped, raped and murdered Enrique “Kiki” Camarena of the DEA in 1985.
As U.S. President Barack Obama personally called the family of fallen agent Jaime Zapata on Wednesday, American and Mexican officials promised to work together to seek justice for him.
But behind the scenes, American officers are asking hard questions. Was information about the movements of the agents leaked to gangsters? Can unarmed American agents still work safely in Mexico? Have drug cartels raised the stakes to directly challenge American authorities?
Many details of the attack remain murky.
Zapata and his colleague — who was airlifted to a U.S. hospital in stable condition — were driving from Mexico City to Monterrey as part of their work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The ICE agency was created in 2003 inside the Homeland Security Department and uses undercover work, paid informants and other investigative techniques to sting all kinds of cross-border menaces, from human smugglers to sex tourists.
It also targets drug cartels, making ICE work together — and sometimes step on the toes — of the DEA.
However, it is unclear exactly what Zapata and his colleague were investigating.
Drug gangs in the northeast of Mexico such as the Zetas have become diversified criminal groups, involved in human smuggling, oil theft and kidnapping. Investigations into any such activities could have rattled the gangsters.
It is also unconfirmed whether the vehicle had diplomatic, American or Mexican license plates. On photos of the vehicle, the plates had been covered up by a Mexican police sticker and U.S. Embassy officials could not immediately confirm what type it had.
That information could shed light on whether the agents were attacked because of mistaken identity amid wanton violence in northeast Mexico or if it was a clear affront to the United States.
The circumstances around the shooting also need to be clarified.
According to reports, the agents were stopped at a roadblock in San Luis Postosi state by uniformed men — a technique often employed by criminal gangs to surprise their victims.
However, it has not been confirmed whether the agents were shot at point-blank range or whether they were shot trying to drive away from the shooters — which could explain how the second agent survived the attack.
Such details would explain much about the type of attackers — and whether they were highway bandits or a commando of assassins.
American agents have been allowed to work south of the border since former U.S. President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1969.
To protect Mexican sovereignty, they are not allowed to carry firearms. With 15,000 drug-related killings in Mexico last year alone, working unarmed in law enforcement here is increasingly difficult.
The Camarena case led to a decade of poor relations between the DEA and Mexican government amid accusations that police were involved in the murder.
However, political analyst David Shirk of San Diego’s Cross Border Institute says that U.S.-Mexico relations have improve enormously in the 25 years since then.
“I don’t think we will see the tensions we saw in the Camarena case,” Shirk said. “The United States and Mexico are working on the same priorities more than ever before. Both governments are going hard after drug gangs.”
In March 2010, gunmen shot dead three people linked to the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez in two separate attacks. The motives for that shooting are still unclear.
There have also been an increasing number of American civilians killed in northeast Mexico.
In January, missionary Nancy Shuman Davis was shot dead by gunmen several hundred miles north of the latest killing, while in October, American David Hartley was killed in the nearby Falcon Lake. Neither case has been solved.
The industrial northeast of Mexico has become one of the bloodiest spheres of the drug war as gunmen from the Zetas, Gulf Cartel, army and police fight daily battles.
This week alone has seen a grenade attack on shoppers, a single massacre of 18 people and dozens of other murders in the area.