— While U.S. officials have long been concerned about the mindless violence bred by Mexico’s bloody and brutal drug wars, they have a new reason to worry: Americans are increasingly getting caught in the deadly crossfire.
Some who have died were themselves working for the drug cartels. But more and more often, experts say, the casualties are U.S. law enforcement officers and innocent victims who died simply because they ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
"These cartels will stop at nothing," said Tiffany Hartley, who became an anti-cartel crusader after her husband, David, apparently was gunned down on Sept. 30 by Mexican drug gang members on Falcon Lake, a dammed section of the Rio Grande straddling the Texas-Mexico border. "The violence is not going to stop and more will die at the unforgiving hands of cartels."
No one can say for certain how many Americans have been killed in the escalating Mexican drug violence in the past several years, but the closest thing to an official list — the U.S. State Department’s database of deaths of U.S. citizens abroad by non-natural causes — indicates that the number has been steadily increasing.
At least 106 U.S. residents were victims of "executions" or "homicides" directly related to drug battles in Mexico in 2010, compared to 79 in 2009 and 35 in 2007, according to the State Department figures.
Many deaths, disappearances aren't tallied
And experts — and the State Department itself — say the number is certainly much higher. For example, the State Department doesn’t list several recent high-profile deaths that have been publicly linked to the drug cartels or cases in which Americans have vanished or been killed in the U.S. by Mexican drug gangs.
"You have a lot of folks who are dual citizens, with some born in the U.S. but (who) live on the Mexico side," Scott Stewart, a vice president with the global intelligence firm STRATFOR, said of the difficulty in documenting American deaths connected to cartel violence. "A lot of them are working back and forth and some are working as gunmen too. And when someone like that dies, it is hard to know. Some simply disappear while others are lying in a vat of lye or dumped into a mass grave."
STRATFOR also says the presence of cartels has been documented in more than 230 U.S. cities.
The number of American deaths pales in comparison to the Mexican death toll from the violence: 15,273 in 2010 alone, according to the Mexican government.
But some U.S. law enforcement officials closest to the border say that new aggressiveness by the cartels — including threats to target U.S. law enforcement officers — and increasing drug gang violence on the U.S. side of the border mean that more Americans will die if the U.S. and Mexico can’t soon turn the tide.
"How many more have to die for the U.S. to take action?" said Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, whose police department investigated the Hartley case. "I'm not saying let's invade Mexico but the truth is Mexico does not own its border. The cartels do."
Recent high-profile cases
Among the recent high-profile killings of Americans believed to be linked to drug trafficking:
• U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata, 32, died Feb. 15 when hit men from the Zetas cartel attacked the agents' blue Chevy Suburban as he and his partner, Victor Avila, drove through Mexico's San Luis Potosi state. Zapata was on assignment to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement attaché in Mexico City from his post in Laredo, Texas. Avila was shot twice in the leg.
• American missionary Nancy Davis. Davis and her husband, Sam, were driving their 2008 Chevrolet pickup on a highway near San Fernando, about 70 miles south of the Mexican border city of Reynosa when killers opened fire on Jan. 26, hitting the 59-year-old woman in the head. Mexican and U.S. authorities said the gunmen were likely cartel thugs bent on stealing the couple’s truck.
• Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy , 38, was found dead in a Chandler, Ariz., apartment on Oct. 10, his severed head several feet away from his trunk. Police later determined that he was killed in retaliation for stealing 400 pounds of marijuana from the PEI-Estatales/El Chapo Drug Trafficking Organization.
• Third-generation cattle rancher Robert Krentz, 58, and his dog, an 8-year-old heeler named Blue, were gunned down moments after Krentz reported seeing someone in trouble on his ranch, northeast of Douglas, Ariz., on March 27, 2010. Subsequent investigation suggested the killing was not random and that drug smugglers may have been responsible.
But many cases involving Americans killed in Mexico or in the U.S. near the border are nowhere near so clear-cut, leaving investigators to try and puzzle out a motive:
• U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, 40, was killed on Dec. 10 during an exchange with heavily armed men along the busiest smuggling corridor in Arizona, just north of the Mexico border. Investigators believe the gunmen were either drug smugglers or bandits who prey on illegal immigrants. Meantime, Congress is investigating whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sold the weapon that was used to kill Terry to suspected Mexican gun runners, according to published reports. The Justice Department has denied the reports.
• Carlos Mario Gonzalez Bermudez, 16, and Juan Carlos Echeverri died on Feb. 5 along with a Mexican teenager in Juárez when unidentified gunmen sprayed a used car dealership with gunfire as the teenagers looked at cars.
• Edgar Lopez, 35, of El Paso, Texas, was killed Oct. 31, along with two Mexican men when gunmen opened fire on a group standing outside a house in Juárez. A day earlier, 26-year-old Giovanna Herrera and 15-year-old Luis Arazia, both U.S. citizens, were slain shortly after crossing an international bridge into Juárez from El Paso.
Cartels getting more aggressive
While the circumstances surrounding individual cases can be difficult to ascertain, authorities in the U.S. say one thing is very clear: The cartels are pushing new boundaries when it comes to targeting Americans.
Recent law enforcement bulletins have stated that cartels have instructed members to shoot and kill American border agents using AK-47 assault rifles, according to testimony presented March 31 at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
"The shooting of special agents Zapata and Avila is a game changer which alters the landscape of the involvement of the United States in Mexico's war against the drug cartels," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee. "For the first time in 25 years, the cartels are now targeting American law enforcement."
Gonzalez, the Texas sheriff, whose department sits on the other side of the Rio Grande from Mexico, said his officers have long seen evidence that the violence doesn’t respect borders.
“The feds say our side of the border is safe,” he said, “but we have bullet holes in our schools and businesses that say otherwise.”
Sheriff’s Sgt. Jimmy Mendoza, who has served on Gonzalez's 28-officer force for six years, said he is worried. He patrols alone while covering a fraction of Zapata County's 997-square-miles.
"The cartels are regrouping, gearing up," Mendoza said. "Our weapons are like squirt guns against their big guns and they want to own our turf."
Gonzalez and many other local lawmen whose territory borders Mexico say the federal government needs to do more to help bolster police forces along the border.
"We need more staffing, we need better weapons," Gonzalez said.
But Tiffany Hartley, who lost her husband to the Mexican drug wars as they jet skied that September day on the Falcon Lake, said the government has waited far too long to get serious about the growing threat posed by the cartels.
"When American people hear cartels they think of Mexico," she said. "What they don't know is that they're already in our town, cities and states. They're in gangs, the jails and in our prisons. They're already among us."