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.
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.
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.
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.
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.