By The New York Times. The gunmen who attacked two American law enforcement officials in Mexico on Tuesday, killing one and wounding the other, knew they were firing on foreign officers but proceeded anyway, current and former American officials said Wednesday.
But an important unresolved question is whether the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were attacked because of their work — more than one Mexican drug gang has expressed interest in killing American officers — or for another reason, like an attempt to steal their dark and presumably armored S.U.V., a vehicle favored by drug gangs.
The Justice and Homeland Security Departments announced on Wednesday the creation of a task force to work with Mexican federal authorities to investigate the shooting, which killed Jaime Zapata and wounded his colleague, Victor Avila. Mr. Zatapa was the first American immigration agent to be killed in Mexico.
The men were shot as they traveled in their vehicle, which had diplomatic plates, on a main highway to Mexico City from San Luis Potosí, about 265 miles to the north. Mr. Avila was released from an American hospital on Wednesday after being treated for gunshot wounds to his legs.
American and Mexican officials would not comment about the reason for the shooting, saying they had not yet determined a motive.
Alonzo Pena, a retired Immigration and Customs Agent who served as its representative in Mexico until 2009, said law enforcement officials had told him that the two men were taking equipment to another team of agents when they encountered the gunmen. They rolled down a window to identify themselves and were shot, Mr. Pena said.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, said the agents “were pursued by numerous cartel members and run off the road.”
“When the agents identified themselves as American diplomats, the cartel members responded by opening fire on the officers,” Mr. McCaul said, adding that “this tragic event is a game changer” that “should be a long overdue wake-up call for the Obama administration that there is a war on our nation’s doorstep.”
American and Mexican officials, who have said that law enforcement relations between the two countries are at record strength, rushed to pledge their cooperation. The bitter history of the last American agent to be killed in Mexico, Enrique Camarena of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985, is still raised in discussions about cross-border relations.
After Mr. Camarena’s death, American officials accused the Mexican police of complicity and whisked one suspect out of Mexico for trial in the United States.
Mr. Pena said that compared with the 1980s, relations between the nations’ law enforcement agencies “are like day and night.”
“I think they can handle this,” he said of the Mexican authorities. “But we will also help them with a lot of resources.”
The immigration and customs agency is expanding in Mexico. There are 30 agents in the country now — part of a large contingent of American agents here — and the agency has proposed adding a dozen more to help train the Mexican police and to investigate smuggling cases.