By William Booth and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 10:09 AM
MEXICO CITY -- One U.S. law enforcement agent was killed and another wounded in a roadside attack in northern Mexico on Tuesday, marking a lethal escalation in the ongoing drug fight here, officials said.
Two agents from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency were traveling in a dark SUV on a busy four-lane highway between Monterrey and the Mexican capital when they were fired upon in the afternoon.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the agents were "shot in the line of duty."
ICE special agent Jaime Zapata was fatally wounded in this attack. Zapata, attached to the ICE detail in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, came from the Laredo office, where he served on the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit and the Border Enforcement Security Task Force.
The second agent, who has not been identified, was shot in the arm and leg and remains in stable condition.
"Let me be clear: Any act of violence against our ICE personnel ... is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety," Napolitano said.
The Mexican foreign ministry expressed its condolences and vowed to seek the assailants.
Attacks against U.S. law enforcement in Mexico are rare. A U.S. undercover drug agent was killed in the line of duty in Mexico in 1985. The Drug Enforcement Administration's Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was kidnapped and tortured to death by narcotics traffickers in Guadalajara.
Camarena's killing, with the apparent complicity of corrupt Mexican officials, created a major strain in U.S.-Mexico relations and prompted a massive DEA investigation. At one point, U.S. investigators seized Mexican suspects and whisked them back to the United States for trial, over protests from the Mexican government.
Until now, the aggressive American response to Camarena's murder has often been cited as the reason why Mexican drug cartels have not targeted U.S. authorities operating in the country, fearing they would provoke the wrath of the U.S. government.
According to Mexican news accounts, police say the ICE agents were attacked the state of San Luis Potosi on Highway 57 near the town of Santa Maria Del Rio.
A photograph of the site shows the SUV driven by the ICE agents parked in a grassy swale and surrounded by Mexican federal investigators.
The motive for the attack and identification of the assailants were not immediately clear. More than 34,000 people have died in drug violence here in the last four years as Mexico wages a U.S.-backed fight against criminal organizations that have grown rich and powerful on proceeds from drug sales to the United States.
In March, an American citizen and employee of the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez was ambushed and slain along with her husband , an El Paso sheriff deputy, as they were returning home from a children's birthday party. The murder of Lesley Enriquez and Arthur Redelfs has not been solved. Mexican authorities brought one man to court who claimed he had ordered the killings, but there has been no trial.
A member of an elite U.S. Border Patrol tactical team was shot and killed in December in a firefight in a remote Arizona canyon just north of the U.S. border with Mexico. The border patrol agents were confronting a group of bandits who prey on illegal immigrants in the area.