Lawmakers: Attack on U.S. agent shows need for reform of policies with Mexico

Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee are considering whether U.S. agents operating in Mexico should be allowed to carry weapons in the wake of an attack by a drug cartel that killed one agent and wounded another.  
 
The brutal attack that saw at least 83 bullets fired at two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents last week also has members pushing to extradite the attackers to the U.S. if they are captured alive.

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The U.S., for more than two decades, has tried unsuccessfully to convince Mexican authorities that the dozens of U.S. agents fighting illegal drug, gun and human trafficking in the country should be allowed to arm themselves. And Mexico has long refrained from extraditing suspected criminals to countries where the death penalty is a possible sentence.  

But lawmakers are hoping that with this brazen attack on a U.S. federal agent — the first since 1985 in Mexico — the country’s government will reconsider their plea for agents to pack heat, and that they will make an exception to extradite the attackers to the U.S. despite the possibility of capital punishment.

Homeland Security Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) told The Hill that the U.S. needs to take every step possible to protect agents in Mexico.

“It is essential that the U.S. government conduct a comprehensive threat assessment to protect U.S. government personnel working in Mexico,” said King in a statement. “We must also talk to the Mexicans about their prohibition against U.S. personnel carrying weapons and determine the extent to which security details must be expanded.”

Fellow committee member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) echoed King’s comments, saying that agents should be allowed to carry weapons and that the White House should respond to the attack forcefully.

“They changed the rules of the game,” said McCaul, in an interview. “Traditionally they would not go after our law enforcement. Our agents told them they were American diplomats and their response was ‘I don’t care,’ and they opened fire with an AK-47.

“It’s a direct attack on the United States and I think the Obama administration needs to respond in a very forceful way to these very dangerous criminal elements,” he said.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security’s subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism, said the U.S. will likely send more federal agents into Mexico to assist with President Felipe Calderón’s crackdown on the country’s drug cartels.

“Our folks should do whatever they need to do to protect themselves, especially under the circumstances we have right now,” Cuellar told The Hill. “You’re going to start to see more agents going over there. You’re going to see an increase in those agents in the immediate future.”

Last year Congress approved $600 million for additional border security, and President Obama sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border region. Since Calderón declared war on the drug cartels, more than 34,000 people have been killed — the majority linked to illicit activity. Yet Mexican police announced Sunday that a dozen taxi drivers were killed over Friday and Saturday in Acapulco; one was beheaded.

The U.S. Border Patrol has more than 20,000 agents in the southwestern border region, with a mere fraction of those traveling into Mexico to assist authorities there. McCaul called for a drastic increase in the number of Border Patrol agents along the border and suggested that the U.S. military assist Mexico in its crackdown on the cartels.

The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice have formed a joint task force to assist Mexico in its investigation into the recent attack on the ICE agents. The State Department on Thursday warned Americans to “maintain a heightened sense of alert” in the central parts of Mexico while the investigation continues.

In the event that the attackers are captured, McCaul, who previously served as deputy attorney general in his state, said they should be extradited and the death penalty should be sought.

“Typically Mexico will not extradite if it is for the death penalty,” said McCaul. “They’re morally opposed to it. I think in this case we need to have them make an exception to that. I would prefer to see them extradited and tried in the United States where I think they would receive swift justice under the law and have the prosecutors apply for the death penalty.”

McCaul said the subcommittee is planning a hearing next month to delve into the United States’s role in Mexico’s war on its drug cartels.

A spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. 

Napolitano is set to speak at the funeral of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata in Brownsville, Texas, on Monday.