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Mexico investigates shooting of U.S. government employees

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times –

MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities said Saturday that they had questioned a dozen federal police agents to try to find out why Mexican police ambushed an SUV south of Mexico City and shot two U.S. government employees inside.

The two Americans, attached to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and reported in stable condition. A Mexican naval captain traveling with them sustained minor injuries in the Friday attack.

No one disputes that Mexican police opened fire on the Americans’ black armored Toyota with diplomatic license plates. The question is why.

The Americans were traveling on the road to Cuernavaca, a popular tourist resort south of Mexico City, when their vehicle was intercepted by a carload of gunmen who gave chase as the Americans attempted to escape, U.S. and Mexican officials said. Federal police in at least three patrol cars joined the chase and opened fire on the Americans until the Mexican military, summoned by the naval captain under fire, intervened.

The carload of gunmen and the federal police reportedly fled the scene at that point.

The federal attorney general’s office said in a statement that its investigators were interviewing 12 federal police agents to determine whether the incident was a case of mistaken identity, as some reports suggest, and the police believed they were pursuing suspects.

Or were the police in cahoots with criminals and providing backup in an ambush aimed at stealing the car or killing its occupants, as some have speculated here?

U.S. officials said the shooters were thought to be among the 12 agents who were interrogated, but Mexican officials did not make clear whether the officers were under arrest or whether additional police were involved.

Pictures of the heavily damaged car showed the front passenger window full of bullet holes and most of the tires blown out. More than 30 spent casings reportedly littered the roadway where the crippled vehicle came to a stop.

The Reforma newspaper quoted an unnamed Mexican marine who was part of the rescue effort as saying the police and the first group of gunmen appeared to be working together.

“This was an aggression by the federal police,” the marine said, according to the paper. “We don’t know who they are working for.”

Improving Mexico’s federal police through vetting and U.S.-supplied training — part of the $1.9-billion Merida program of U.S. aid to Mexico — has been a cornerstone of President Felipe Calderon’s security policy. But nearly six years into those efforts, the vastly expanded agency, now numbering 35,000, remains riddled with corruption.

Most recently, federal police allegedly involved in a cocaine-smuggling ring turned their guns on fellow agents in the Mexico City International Airport, killing three. The government responded by reassigning all 348 federal police stationed at the airport.

More than 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006. During the same period, the presence of U.S. government personnel has grown exponentially.

Attacks on U.S. officials are not frequent but do occur, with two deadly incidents in the last two years. In 2011, an American federal agent was killed on a highway to the central city of San Luis Potosi and his partner wounded in what authorities described as an attack by a drug gang who mistook the Americans for rivals. In 2010, a staffer from the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez and her husband were shot to death, also in what authorities called a case of mistaken identity.

The ability of American government personnel to travel by road in many parts of Mexico has been steadily curtailed, U.S. Embassy officials say.

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