* Dozen police officers to be held for 40 days
* Gunmen dressed in plainclothes
* CIA officers were on training mission
By Ioan Grillo
TRES MARIAS, Mexico, Aug 29 Mexican federal
police shot and wounded two CIA operatives last week, security
sources said, in an apparently deliberate attack that could hurt
U.S.-Mexico cooperation in their war against drug cartels.
The two experienced officers were just south of the capital
on their way to a Mexican Marine base on Friday, working with
local authorities on a training mission, when federal police
riddled their armored van bearing diplomatic plates with
The men, traveling with a Mexican Marine captain, were
wounded and taken to a hospital for treatment, though their
injuries were not life-threatening. Their vehicle's tires and
rear windshield were shot out.
A dozen federal police officers detained and questioned over
the attack have been ordered held in custody for 40 days. In
initial statements to federal prosecutors, they claimed they
confused the Americans for criminals.
However, witnesses who saw the shooting at a bend in the
road outside the small town of Tres Marias told Reuters the
gunmen were dressed in plain clothes and pursued the Americans
firing from unmarked cars and on foot -- a classic style of
gangland hits in Mexico.
"We had no idea at all they were police. They looked like
criminals," said one woman who witnessed the incident but asked
not to be named for fear of repercussions.
A Mexican government official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said the evidence suggested gang members and corrupt
police had carried out the attack before other police arrived at
the scene and prevented the men being killed.
"This was not an accident," the official said.
Witnesses said the CIA driver made impressive evasive
maneuvers which likely saved the lives of those inside the car,
and they believe they heard hundreds of bullets fired,
estimating the incident lasted around six minutes.
The Mexican official said the vehicle was chased for about 4
km (2.5 miles) before it was halted, and that shell casings from
AK-47s, which are not used by Mexican police and are a weapon of
choice for drug cartel members, were found at the scene.
A total of four vehicles were involved in the incident,
though only the shot-up van was found at the scene, the official
added. One of the vehicles identified by eyewitnesses has been
linked to other crimes, the official said.
Tres Marias is close to the city of Cuernavaca, a popular
weekend retreat for Mexico City residents that has been badly
hit by drug violence in recent years. In 2009, Mexican Marines
shot dead leading cartel boss Arturo Beltran Leyva, alias "The
Beard," in Cuernavaca in an operation based on information from
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
His brother and fellow drug boss, Hector Beltran Leyva, is
thought by some security experts to be at large nearby.
The Mexican official said the rise in criminal activity in
the area was very likely being abetted by corrupt police.
"The police here have been heavily infiltrated by organized
crime," said a local man, who declined to be identified.
American and Mexican officials are still investigating the
incident and Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales said on
Wednesday that an ambush was one possible explanation.
U.S. officials in diplomatic vehicles went over the scene of
the shooting on Wednesday, taking fresh evidence under the
protection of Mexican Marines.
A separate Mexican official close to the investigation who
asked not to be identified said the CIA officers were within a
few miles of the Marine base when they were shot at.
The CIA declined to comment on the incident.
One U.S. official familiar with inquiries into the incident
said there are a "whole lot of unanswered questions" and that
dealings between the United States and Mexico could be seriously
affected if Washington concludes a major cover-up is going on.
Mexico's police have been plagued by corruption and officers
working for hire for cartels in recent years, amid a surge in
violence that poses a major challenge for incoming President
Enrique Pena Nieto, who is due to take office in December.
Roadside shootings have been a feature of the violence that
has overshadowed President Felipe Calderon's six years in
office. Gangs have been known to set up fake military
checkpoints to ambush rivals.
Last year, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
agents were shot by hitmen on a major Mexican highway. One of
the agents died.
Calderon promised on Tuesday to get to the bottom of how the
two CIA officers were shot. Speaking alongside the U.S.
ambassador in Mexico, Calderon said the incident should not
hinder bilateral efforts to fight Mexico's violent drug cartels.
"We can't allow these things to happen, whether it is
because of negligence, lack of training, lack of trust or
complicity," Calderon said.
The CIA, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have
officers operating out of the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.
Under the "Merida Initiative" which began in 2008, U.S.
operatives have trained Mexican police and soldiers to help them
fight the cartels. Washington has also supplied equipment
including Black Hawk helicopters and surveillance gear.
Much of the training and hardware has gone to the Marines,
an elite force inside Mexico's Navy Ministry that has captured
or killed several major drug traffickers. However, the United
States has also trained the federal police.
During Calderon's six-year offensive against cartels, there
have been more than 55,000 drug-related murders. More than 3,000
police and soldiers have died, although many were involved with