Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Americans Targets of Mexican Drug Gangs

U.S. Warns of Mexico Peril
Consulate Says Americans May Be Targets of Drug Gangs; 32 More Bodies Found

MEXICO CITY—For the first time in Mexico's drug war, the U.S. government said its employees and citizens could be the targets of drug gangs in three Mexican states, a disclosure that could signal danger for Americans south of the border.

The little-noticed warning, published last Friday in a warden's message from the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, said U.S. officials had "information that Mexican criminal gangs may intend to attack U.S. law-enforcement officers or U.S. citizens in the near future in Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and San Luis Potosí."

In Tamaulipas state, 32 bodies were found in mass graves on a ranch on Tuesday, bringing the total discovered there since last week to 120, authorities said. On Friday, the U.S. State Department said an American man was reported kidnapped from a bus in the state, but it wasn't known if he was among the dead.

The Consulate's message could have major implications for Americans across Mexico, who have lived in and visited the country under assurances from both governments that drug-related violence wasn't directed toward them. An estimated one million U.S. citizens live in Mexico and millions more visit each year.

Among the cities covered in the warning is Monterrey, the country's northern business hub where U.S. companies like Whirlpool Corp. and General Electric Co. have their regional bases.

Tamaulipas state shares 230 miles of border with Texas and handles important cross-border traffic through Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa; San Luis Potosí is a popular tourist destination, famous for its silver mines.

Whirlpool declined to comment on the warning. GE didn't immediately have a comment.

A division president of one major U.S. company canceled a planned visit to Monterrey scheduled for the end of April after the Consulate warning, company officials said.

U.S. State Department officials wouldn't comment on what triggered the warning.

"My guess is that this is a generic threat that they want to take seriously but not send people into panic mode," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Phrases like 'may intend' and 'near future' sound very unspecific to me, although worrisome nonetheless."

Mexican officials had no immediate comment on the warning, which seemed sure to add to rising tensions between Washington and Mexico City over the drug war. U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual was pressured to resign recently after comments he made about the Mexican army's inefficiency in diplomatic cables and published by WikiLeaks angered President Felipe Calderón.

Until recently, experts and officials on both sides of the border agreed that Mexican drug cartels focused their attacks on rivals and the occasional Mexican law-enforcement official but had little incentive to target outsiders.

Recent events have begun to call that assumption into question, including the killing of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and the wounding of another in San Luis Potosí in February by gunmen from a drug gang.

"This is definitively an increase in the level of concern," said Jay Cope, a senior fellow at Washington's National Defense University. The incidents involving Americans make people wonder if "we are beginning to see a pattern begin to emerge now that hadn't seemed to be a pattern before," Mr. Cope said.

Last year, 107 American citizens were victims of homicide in Mexico, according to the State Department, up from 77 homicides the year before.

The warning followed the recent grisly discovery of mass graves on a ranch in the Tamaulipas county of San Fernando. The fact that there are at least a dozen graves suggests victims may have been killed in separate incidents.

Mexican authorities are pointing to a criminal gang known as Los Zetas, one of Mexico's most powerful and barbaric drug gangs, which officials say had stopped buses on state highways and kidnapped passengers.

The fact that the warning focuses on three states where Los Zetas is active suggests that gang might be the one to potentially target U.S. citizens, analysts said. In the past year, Los Zetas have come under intense pressure from rivals in the trade and Mexico's army and police forces.

"The Zetas have become so disorganized or so desperate that they could take action against U.S. citizens," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, adding that the discovery of the mass graves "suggests their behavior has now passed the bounds of rational thinking, even for criminal enterprise."

Not everyone agreed. Raul Benítez, a security expert at National Autonomous University of Mexico, doubted that U.S. law enforcement agents or tourists are in danger of becoming targets for the cartels. "The narcos don't target gringos—they are too scared of U.S. intelligence services," he said.

An exodus of Americans already began last year in the business hub of Monterrey, as some executives and their families moved north to Texas or south to Mexico City. Caterpillar Inc. said last year it had relocated some 40 employees and their family members from places in Mexico, including Monterrey.

Dave Long, the pastor at the Union Church in Monterrey, said a few of his church members had expressed worry about the new consular warning. Mr. Long said the church has lost about 50 families of the congregation in the past year, the vast majority Americans leaving due to security concerns. For his part, Mr. Long said he is staying in Monterrey and takes normal precautions, like not driving late at night or to the border through neighboring Tamaulipas state. "I survived Idi Amin in Uganda, so we aren't planning to leave," he said.

In a recent survey of businesses by the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico, 67% reported their member company felt less secure than the year before, with more than half attributing the problems to organized crime groups.

This year has included some grisly slayings of Americans. In January, Nancy Davis, a 59-year-old missionary was shot in the head after being ambushed in her car near San Fernando. Her husband raced her car across a border bridge against traffic into Texas, where she later died.

And last year David Hartley, an American riding a jet ski on the Mexican side of a lake on the Texas border was abducted, his body never found. Shortly afterward, the severed head of a detective on the case was found in front of a Mexican army barracks.

Mr. Benítez said the target audience of the Warden statement could be the Mexican government. "It's a warning to the Mexican government to better control those areas," Mr. Benítez said.

—James R. Hagerty, Clare Ansberry and David Luhnow contributed to this article.

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