U.S. counternarcotics officials recently discovered that Mexican drug cartels discussed plots to kill Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Texas Rangers who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management disclosed the information during a hearing this morning on how DHS is battling Mexican drug cartels.
A March 2011 law enforcement bulletin "warned that cartels were overheard plotting to kill ICE agents and Texas Rangers guarding the border using AK-47s by shooting at them from across the border," McCaul said.
U.S. officials could not ascertain how credible the threats were but were concerned enough that they alerted agents operating on the border.
The information is believed to have been derived from intercepted communications.
Asked about the bulletin, a DHS official said, "Out of an abundance of caution, we routinely share information that could impact our frontline personnel in order to ensure that they are aware of any and all threats."
Calls to the Texas Rangers were not returned on Thursday.
Last month two U.S. ICE agents were targeted by cartel members in shooting that killed ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and wounded his partner, Special Agent Victor Avila.
McCaul, who has spoken with Agent Avila about the incident, said today, "Both agents pleaded for their lives in Spanish, identifying themselves as United States federal agents. Members of the Los Zetas cartel responded by firing more than 80 rounds from automatic weapons.
"The shooting of Special Agents Zapata and Avila is a game-changer which alters the landscape of the United States' involvement in Mexico's war against the drug cartels," McCaul added at the hearing.
President Obama and other top U.S. law enforcement officials have vowed the full force of the federal government to support local Mexican authorities hunting down Zapata's killers and attempting to bring them to justice.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department and DHS offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the individuals responsible for the shooting.
Today, McCaul introduced legislation to designate the six major Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Such designations are overseen by the State Department under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Making the cartels foreign terrorist organizations would levy enhanced criminal penalties on them and would place curbs on their finances, assets and ability to travel.
"Cartels kidnap, kill and mutilate innocent civilians, elected officials and law enforcement, using gruesome tactics to intimidate government officials and citizens to abide by their rules," McCaul said. "Torture, beheadings, dismembering and mutilation are common.
"While not driven by religious ideology, Mexican drug cartels operate in the same manner as al Qaeda, the Taliban or Hezbollah," he added, "each sharing a desire, and using similar tactics to gain political and economic influence."