ICE Agent Death Highlights Risks in Drug War

MEXICO CITY - The killing of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and wounding of another in Mexico highlights the risk for American officials helping with Mexico's crackdown on organized crime under increasing cooperation between the two countries.

Special Agent Jaime Zapata, on assignment to the ICE Attache in Mexico City from his post in Laredo, Texas, died Tuesday when gunmen attacked the agents' blue Suburban vehicle as they drove through the northern state of San Luis Potosi.

The other agent, Victor Avila, suffered gunshot wounds to the leg survived the ambush. He has just been returned to the United States, according to CBS News sources.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the fatal attack on American law enforcement, the highest-profile since the 1985 torture and killing of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, won't change the U.S. commitment to supporting Mexico in its crackdown on organized crime.

"Let me be clear: any act of violence against our ICE personnel -- or any DHS personnel -- is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety," Napolitano said in a statement. "We remain committed in our broader support for Mexico's efforts to combat violence within its borders."

U.S. and Mexican officials said they were working closely together to investigate the shooting and find those responsible.

The two agents were driving a four-lane, federal highway from Mexico City to the northern city of Monterrey on routine business and not as part of an investigation, said a U.S. federal law enforcement official who is not authorized to discuss the case publicly. ICE, the agency for immigration enforcement inside the U.S., also investigates drugs, money laundering and smuggling of weapons and other contraband in Mexico, according to former director Julie Myers.

CBS News has learned that the agents were ambushed by as many as 10 gunmen, but it is unclear if the gunmen knew that federal agents were in the car. Law enforcement officials told CBS News that one vehicle passed the Suburban the agents were driving and cut it off, trapping it between two cars loaded with gunmen. Of of he agents rolled down his window and both were shot. The agent rolled the window back up, and other gunmen opened fire on the armored vehicle with high-powered weapons.

It's not known whether the men were hit because they were law enforcement or because of the blue Suburban they were driving, a truck coveted by use for drug gangs. Texas missionary Nancy Davis shot to death last month in northern Mexico while traveling in a large 2008 Chevrolet pickup, and police believe the attackers were trying to steal the truck.

San Luis Potosi police said gunmen killed one person and wounded another on Highway 57 near the town of Santa Maria Del Rio at about 2:30 p.m., though they couldn't confirm they were the ICE agents. Police said a checkpoint was unlikely on such high-speed stretch of highway and that the bullet-riddled Suburban was found off to one side.

"This worries us very much because this type of incident doesn't happen very often in San Luis Potosi," said a police spokesman, who was not authorized to give his name because the investigation is being carried out by federal police.

Special Agent Zapata began his federal law enforcement career with the Department of Homeland Security as a member of the U.S. Border Patrol in Yuma, Arizona. He joined ICE in 2006 and was assigned to the Office of the Deputy Special Agent in Charge in Laredo, Texas, where he served on the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit as well as the Border Enforcement Security Task Force, the department said in a press release.

A native of Brownsville, Texas, Zapata graduated from the University of Texas at Brownsville in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice.

The department added in its press statement that it is working closely with Mexican authorities and lending the full resources of the U.S. government in pursuing the perpetrators of the "unconscionable" crime.

While San Luis Potosi has seen sporadic incidents of drug violence, it borders two states where cartels are waging a bloody fight for territory.

Mexico is fighting heavily armed and powerful drug cartels that supply the U.S. market. Since President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown on organized crime shortly after taking office in December 2006, almost 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

The U.S. has increased equipment and training support for Mexico in recent years through its $1.4 billion Merida Initiative.

As of January last year, 26 ICE special agents also had trained over 4,000 new Mexican police recruits, according to the embassy.

Though Mexico is seeing record rates of violence, it is rare for U.S. officials to be attacked. The U.S. government, however, has become increasingly concerned about the safety of its employees in Mexico.

In March, an U.S. employee of the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez, her husband and a Mexican tied to the consulate were killed when drug gang members fired on their cars as they left a children's party in the city across from El Paso, Texas.

The U.S. State Department has taken several measures over the past year to protect consulate employees and their families. It has at times authorized the departure of relatives of U.S. government employees in northern Mexican cities.

In July, it temporarily closed the consulate in Ciudad Juarez after receiving unspecified threats. Earlier this month, the consulate in Guadalajara prohibited U.S. government officials from traveling after dark on the road to the airport because of cartel-related attacks in Mexico's second-largest city.