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Mexico: Details murky in killing of US agent

Killing of Jaime Zapata is the highest-profile attack on a US agent in decades.

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Mexican police guard a U.S. Embassy vehicle after it came under attack by unknown assailants in Santa Maria del Rio, Feb. 15, 2011. (El Pulso/AFP/Getty Images) (GlobalPost)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The black SUV with bullet-ridden windows and blood-stained seats bore the same signs as thousands of execution-style hits that have rattled Mexico in recent months.

But when the bleeding victims were identified as American agents and one died in hospital, a ripple of reactions spread rapidly from Mexico’s presidential palace to the White House.

The incident marks the most high-profile attack on American special agents working south of the border since gangsters kidnapped, raped and murdered Enrique “Kiki” Camarena of the DEA in 1985.

As U.S. President Barack Obama personally called the family of fallen agent Jaime Zapata on Wednesday, American and Mexican officials promised to work together to seek justice for him.

But behind the scenes, American officers are asking hard questions. Was information about the movements of the agents leaked to gangsters? Can unarmed American agents still work safely in Mexico? Have drug cartels raised the stakes to directly challenge American authorities?

Many details of the attack remain murky.

Zapata and his colleague — who was airlifted to a U.S. hospital in stable condition — were driving from Mexico City to Monterrey as part of their work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The ICE agency was created in 2003 inside the Homeland Security Department and uses undercover work, paid informants and other investigative techniques to sting all kinds of cross-border menaces, from human smugglers to sex tourists.

It also targets drug cartels, making ICE work together — and sometimes step on the toes — of the DEA.

However, it is unclear exactly what Zapata and his colleague were investigating.

Drug gangs in the northeast of Mexico such as the Zetas have become diversified criminal groups, involved in human smuggling, oil theft and kidnapping. Investigations into any such activities could have rattled the gangsters.

It is also unconfirmed whether the vehicle had diplomatic, American or Mexican license plates. On photos of the vehicle, the plates had been covered up by a Mexican police sticker and U.S. Embassy officials could not immediately confirm what type it had.

That information could shed light on whether the agents were attacked because of mistaken identity amid wanton violence in northeast Mexico or if it was a clear affront to the United States.