As more reports surface suggesting that the Zetas criminal syndicate is behind last week’s murder of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agent Jaime Zapata in San Luis Potosi, InSight takes a closer look at the accusations and the Zetas’ activity in that strategic state.
It has been more than a week since unidentified gunmen killed Zapata and wounded another U.S. agent in the north-central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. According to sources consulted by InSight, the agents were attacked while traveling on Highway 57, which connects San Luis Potosi to Mexico City.
As InSight has learned, evidence suggests that the ICE agents rolled down the window of their armored SUV, reinforcing the theory that the assailants may have been wearing military uniforms, perhaps causing the agents to believe that they were being stopped at a security checkpoint. A perpetrator stuck an AK-47 in the window, shooting Zapata in the chest and another agent, Victor Avila, in the leg. Other media outlets have reported that the agents were run off the road, and were not held up at a roadblock.
Both the New York Times and Mexico’s El Universal have reported that the vehicle driven by the agents carried diplomatic license plates and indicated that the officers may have verbally identified themselves as American to their attackers. Still, it remains unclear if the agents were intentionally targeted by gunmen or if they were killed in a carjacking gone very wrong.
Despite the apparent lack of motive for the killing, a possible suspect has emerged in the case. Brownsville, Texas’ Brownsville Herald reports that it received a communique supposedly from the Gulf Cartel in which the cartel blamed Zapata’s death on their rivals, the Zetas. The full communique, available at El Blog del Narco, alleges that the attack was committed by Zeta commander Jesus Rejon Aguilar, alias ‘El Mamito.’
Although it is common for cartels to wage propaganda wars against each other in the Mexican media, some in the U.S. believe the accusation holds water. As the Wall Street Journal reports, an unnamed U.S. official involved in the investigation believes Rejon could be behind the death. “El Mamito and all the Zetas are being closely looked at by Mexican authorities, supported by the joint Department of Homeland Security – Department of Justice task force,” said the official. “He [Rejon] is very well-known to us. He is in the mix.”
If the Zetas are indeed behind the killing, then it could herald a new wave of violence in San Luis de Potosi, a state that has long been considered a relatively safe tourist destination. As Mexican crime analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio writes in El Diario, the state is emerging as a battleground between the Zetas and Gulf Cartel.
In just the last two weeks, the police chiefs of three municipalities in the state – Ebano, Tamuin and San Vicente – have been murdered. This is normally a precursor to any full-fledged battle as one rival attempts to “heat up” (‘calentar’) the area prior to entry by eliminating the ruling organization’s contacts in the police.
Although the Zetas are in control of most of the state, the Gulf Cartel reportedly controls Ciudad Valles, the state’s second-largest city. According to Riva, the recent drug-related deaths in the state can be attributed to skirmishes between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, along with Gulf Cartel’s allies in the Sinaloa and Familia cartels. The violence, he argues, is a sign that San Luis Potosi is now, “Fully infected, along with the rest of the blood-red national landscape.”
A quick look at a map reveals why this state has become so important. It is easily accessible from Mexico City and the Caribbean coast and gives organized criminals access to routes pointing north, including through Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas’ most important drug trafficking corridor.
The Gulf Cartel is already locked in a fierce battle with the Zetas in Monterrey. This battle appears to have made its way south to San Luis Potosi.