By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; A07
MEXICO CITY - The governor of the state where two U.S. federal agents were shot by the roadside said Wednesday that the ambush was carried out by cartel gunmen.
The governor of San Luis Potosi, Fernando Toranzo, told reporters that the agents were attacked by the same criminal organizations responsible for the unprecedented violence in his state. He did not name the cartel.
Jaime Zapata, 32, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was shot and killed Tuesday by unknown assailants four hours north of Mexico City. Another ICE agent riding with him was wounded and transferred to a hospital in Houston, where he is in stable condition. He was identified by the Houston Chronicle as Victor Avila.
The agents were returning from meetings with their U.S. counterparts in San Luis Potosi, where the Mexican federal police academy is located and where U.S. trainers teach. The Mexican government does not authorize U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons.
President Obama spoke with Zapata's parents and told them the agent's "service and sacrifice will be remembered, and that the U.S. will work with the Mexican government to bring the assailants to justice," according to White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the formation of a joint task force, led by the FBI, to track down the perpetrators.
A similar task force to find the killers of a U.S. consulate employee who was ambushed and gunned down in the streets of Ciudad Juarez last year has produced a number of suspects but no convictions. In the most violent Mexican states, only a small number of the more than 34,000 murders in the past four years have been successfully prosecuted.
Mexican authorities say the two ICE agents were traveling to Mexico City along a popular four-lane highway, driving a dark SUV with diplomatic plates that was apparently altered with bulletproof glass and armor plating.
Mafia gunmen seeking vehicles, weapons, drugs, money and kidnap victims often erect roadblocks along Mexican highways. Last month, a U.S. missionary couple driving in northern Mexico was assaulted by armed commandos. The woman was shot and died of her wounds.
The gunmen who block the roads or order vehicles to stop sometimes wear police or military uniforms and drive official-looking vehicles, known as clones. Officials have not released detailed information about the ambush of the ICE agents, and it is not clear whether they were specific targets.