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A motive for an attack on US cops in Mexico

Though some in the media have speculated that the agents were targeted specifically, it is more likely that the attackers wanted their vehicle

Editor's Note: This special feature is reprinted in partnership with STRATFOR, a global private intelligence company. The company uses human intelligence and other sources combined with powerful analysis to create independent, non-ideological content enabling users to better understand international events. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.

MEXICO CITY — Unidentified gunman opened fire on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Mexico on Feb. 15, killing of one of the agents. Though some have speculated that the agents were specifically targeted, it is more likely that the attackers wanted to steal their vehicle. Given the threat of carjackings in northern Mexico, motorists should consider lower-profile vehicles.

Two special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City came under fire from unidentified gunmen while in driving in San Luis Potosi state on the Mexico City-Monterrey stretch of Highway 57 on Feb. 15, killing one of the agents.

Though some in the media have speculated that the agents were targeted specifically, it is more likely that the attackers wanted their vehicle.

Gunmen stopped the two agents, who were traveling in a new armored Chevrolet Suburban bearing diplomatic license plates, at a roadblock. Though the full details of the roadblock remain unclear, in a common cartel tactic, two vehicles block the roadway ahead while a third vehicle pulls up behind the targeted vehicle to box the victim in. When the driver rolled down the window to identify himself, probably assuming the roadblock was official, the gunmen opened fire through the open window, striking both agents.

Photographs and video of the scene from Mexican media indicate bullets struck the inside of the front passenger-door window and the right rear-side window. Signs of bullet impacts are not evident either inside or outside the driver's-side windows; no images of the windshield are available yet. Taken with the lack of bullet impacts on the rear window, it appears that the only bullets to enter the vehicle did so via the open driver's window.

Both occupants were struck. One died later, while the other reportedly is in stable condition in a U.S. hospital with gunshot wounds to the leg and arm.

The gunmen fled immediately after the shooting, probably when they realized the occupants were U.S. federal agents. According to some commentators, Mexican drug cartels specifically targeted the agents. But while Los Zetas, who are active in the area, have shown no compunctions about killing Mexican officials, it is not likely they would risk bringing the full weight of the United States down upon themselves -- particularly when they already are under heavy pressure due to their battle with the New Federation.

Whoever the gunmen were, they probably were targeting the ICE agents' vehicle, not the agents themselves. Mexican cartels are known to prefer large, late-model SUVs and extended- or crew-cab pickups. Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes and Ford F-150, F-250 and F-350 crew-cab pickups top their wish lists. Previously, cartels could afford to purchase such vehicles, but with both the U.S. and Mexican governments increasing the pressure on the cartels, interdicting as much as one-tenth of their revenues, the cartels increasingly have turned to carjackings and other methods of quickly replenishing their tactical assets over the last 12 months.

The roadblock thus probably presented a trap for any targets of opportunity rather than an ambush aimed at a specific target. All the drug cartels operating in northern Mexico have adopted this multipurpose tactic, which in addition to allowing them to carjack vehicles for use in their activities lets them funnel opponents into ambushes, steal other cartels' contraband and hamper law enforcement response to any subsequent battles.

This latest event reflects the same setup and behaviors employed in the kidnapping of a U.S. executive in Monterrey on Jan. 4 and the attack on a U.S. missionary couple traveling near San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, on Jan. 26. The executive was driving an armored late-model SUV, while the missionaries were in a 2008 Chevrolet pickup. All three of these incidents occurred in a region with a known Zeta cartel presence that the New Federation has been actively battling to eject. The Zetas currently control a significant region in the northeastern states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Coahuila, as well as portions of San Luis Potosi state.

Given the increase in carjackings in the region, STRATFOR has cautioned its clients to avoid the use of high-profile or high-visibility vehicles for their personnel in Mexico -- and within the U.S. border zone as well. The practice of U.S. government agencies to use new, expensive and highly visible SUVs in Mexico creates tempting targets in a volatile environment. Alternatives that incorporate armored protection with the appearance of age and heavy mileage likely would lower the risk to U.S. citizens and federal personnel in Mexico.

Copyright 2011 STRATFOR.

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