In the aftermath of the shooting of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer in northern Mexico, analysts and observers are ruminating on whether the murder is a "game changer."
"This is a game changer. The cartels are willing to take on the United States," one Democratic Texas Congressman told the Houston Chronicle, while another House representative described the event as "an attack on the United States."
"They will be hunted down at all cost," a retired DEA agent told the Chronicle. The Justice and Homeland Security Departments have already announced the creation of a special task force meant to investigate the death of U.S. federal agent Jaime Zapata, pictured here, who was killed after gunmen assaulted his vehicle in San Luis de Potosi.
New details about the shooting from the Chronicle and the New York Times indicate the ICE agents were driving an armored vehicle with diplomatic plates and may have even verbally identified themselves as "American" to their attackers. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had previously warned that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) would met an "overwhelming response" if violence spilled over the border in the U.S. The question now is what kind of response, "overwhelming" or not, could Zapata's death elicit.
In the near future, the most immediate reaction looks to be a lot of political rhetoric. Mexico is still waiting for large amounts of undelivered aid promised by the Merida Initiative, including $500 million for training and equipment like military helicopters, police inspection technology and so on. One reaction to Zapata's death could be that the U.S. quietly begins deploying more personnel – security contractors, law enforcement advisors, and so on – to give the appearance of more actively working to strengthen the Mexican security forces in their fight against the DTOs. Any kind of overt intervention, the kind conjured by a term like "overwhelming response," is out of the question.
As recently indicated by the hubbub stirred by U.S. Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal, who, during a speech to a university, mentioned in passing that he didn't want to ever send U.S. troops across the border, Mexico is extremely sensitive about issues of national sovereignty.
The most concrete reaction so far appears to be the creation of an investigative unit, a joint task force between the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, to be led by the FBI. But what are the odds that an investigation will result in an arrest and a conviction in Mexico? The most recent killing of a top-level U.S. official, consular worker Lesley Enriquez, is still unsolved and has not yet resulted in a trial, according to the Washington Post.
Another comparison that comes to mind is the kidnapping, torturing and killing of DEA agent Enrique 'Kiki' Camarena in 1985. Camarena's death is generally presented as the event which generated such strong reprisals from Washington that Mexican cartels have since avoided targeting U.S. officers. Eventually a string of powerful drug lords, Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, were all arrested. But Camarena's murder also exposed links between the cartels, the police and the Mexican government that were never fully explored, let alone brought before the courts.
In another scenario, Zapata's death could bring a renewed sense of urgency to refocus the "drug war" against a single DTO, quite possibly the Zetas, who control the area where the ICE agents were assaulted. If there is enough pressure from the U.S., could this result in a concentrated effort to dismantle the Zetas' leadership, at least in the San Luis Potosi region? Will any of the inevitable arrests, in connection to Zapata's murder, actually disrupt a criminal organization already powerful enough to terrorize Mexico's highways? Or, as occurred with Camarena's death, will a few convenient scapegoats fall to disguise the fact that the investigation has not progressed as far as it should have?
Violence towards U.S. agents in Mexico is not new, and it is perhaps intellectually risky to interpret such events as an "escalation" of cartel tactics, or as evidence that Mexican criminals are growing "bold" enough to target their powerful northern neighbor. Deaths like Zapata are tragic, but the unspoken question behind the public outcry always seems to be whether the U.S. will deepen their involvement in Mexico in reprisal.
It is worth remembering that the U.S. is already deeply involved, whether it is trafficking arms or consuming drugs or laundering money (the most famous case being Citibank's handling of millions of illicit funds deposited by Raul Salinas, brother to President Carlos Salinas and accused of links to cartels). The deaths of U.S. personnel in Mexico are not an indication that the U.S. now shares Mexico's problem with violence. It has shared the problem for many years now.