BROWNSVILLE — A new law enforcement bulletin warns that members of drug cartels have been overheard plotting to kill federal agents and Texas Rangers who guard the border, officials in Washington reported Thursday.
The bulletin, which was issued in March, said cartel members planned to use AK-47 assault rifles to shoot agents and Rangers from across the border. It did not name the cartels.
The information was released at a hearing before a panel of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management addressed “The U.S. Homeland Security Role in the Mexican War Against the Drug Cartels.”
U.S. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, R-Texas, talked briefly about the bulletin at the hearing. He said this and other findings he cited “are acts of terrorism as defined by law. The shooting of Special Agent Zapata and Avila is a game changer, which alters the landscape of United State’s involvement in Mexico’s war against drug cartels.”
He was referring to Jaime Jorge Zapata, 32, a Brownsville native and special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who was killed on Feb. 15 while on duty in Mexico. Injured in the same attack was Special Agent Victor Avila. Members of the Zetas criminal organization are suspected in the attack.
Tom Vinger, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Thursday in a statement: “DPS constantly keeps our officers and our law enforcement partners informed of any intelligence that suggests possible threats to their safety. However, we cannot comment on specific law enforcement bulletins.”
In a response to the threats, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said, “Out of an abundance of caution, we routinely share information that could impact our frontline personnel in order to ensure that they are aware of any and all threats.”
The news comes at time when ICE reportedly is having a difficult time recruiting agents willing to work in Mexico, said Luis Alvarez, assistant director for ICE International Affairs, who testified at the hearing.
Although cooperation with the Mexican government has been “excellent,” Alvarez said, “it is getting more and more difficult (to recruit) because of the increase in violence.”
“It is a difficult work environment. They are constantly looking out for their safety, their surroundings. ... They are concerned about their families from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep,” Alvarez said.
At the hearing, a picture of the vehicle in which Zapata and Avila were riding was displayed. McCaul described it as a “highly secure vehicle.” More than 80 rounds from AK-47 rifles were fired at the SUV.
“This demonstrates how violent the situation has become down there. … It looks like something out of a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ movie. This is real, and that is what is happening in Mexico,” McCaul said.
In response to the attack, ICE has brought back its agents from Mexico for additional training, Alvarez said.
“We have provided them with some defensive driving tactics so they can carry out their mission and be prepared for whatever they are going to withstand down in Mexico,” he said.
McCaul said Zapata and Avila pleaded for their lives in Spanish and identified themselves as U.S. federal agents. The attackers responded by firing a barrage of bullets.
“I know agent Avila said that (there were) 10 guys with AK-47s,” McCaul said. “What can you do in that situation? Totally out-gunned and out-manned.”
The U.S. government has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of those responsible for the attack on Zapata and Avila. The Mexican government has offered a reward of up to 10 million pesos — equal to roughly $837,000.
Laura B. Martinez is a reporter for The Brownsville Herald.