The Sept. 30 shooting death of an American tourist on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Texas, has grabbed international headlines in the past two weeks. Media reported that David Hartley of McAllen, Texas, and his wife, Tiffany, were on Jet Skis photographing a semi-submerged church in the Old Guerrero region of the Mexican side of Falcon Lake when a group of armed men travelling in two to three boats approached them. Upon seeing the group, the pair attempted to flee back to the U.S. side of the lake, which prompted the men to open fire. Tiffany Hartley told investigators that David Hartley was struck twice in the head and that she tried to recover her husband’s body but was forced to flee in fear for her own life.
Given the current security situation in the border region, particularly in Mexico, many have speculated at the possible involvement of drug trafficking organisations in this case. Those suspicions only grew when the decapitated head of the Tamaulipas state investigator on the case, Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, was delivered in a suitcase to the Mexican military’s Eight Zone headquarters in Reynosa on Oct. 12. STRATFOR sources have confirmed cartel involvement and said that Hartley appears to be a victim of mistaken identity.
The war between the Los Zetas and Gulf cartels that began in January 2010 has engulfed the entire Tamaulipas border region and spread both into interior regions such as Nuevo Leon, Veracruz and Hidalgo and across the border into South Texas. After years of working together, each group possesses intimate knowledge of the other’s operations, which has led to both sides being extremely cautious and increasing counterintelligence operations against their rival. Falcon Lake, particularly around the Old Guerrero region, is a notorious staging point for large amounts of marijuana en route to the United States, so it became a focal point of counterintelligence operations for both cartels.
David Hartley worked for a U.S. oil and gas company with operations in Reynosa, and the couple had lived in the city for two years, only moving back across the border to McAllen in the past few months. The vehicle the Hartleys had used to tow their two Jet Skis to the U.S. side of Falcon Lake on Sept. 30 still had Tamaulipas state licence plates. STRATFOR sources say Los Zetas scouts, known as halcones, had identified the Hartleys’ truck as it made its way to Falcon Lake and watched the two set out on their Jet Skis toward the Old Guerrero region. Both Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas operatives have been known to conduct surveillance and countersurveillance operations on personal watercraft, so these scouts thus identified the Hartleys as possible Gulf surveillance assets, given their vehicle’s licence plate and their method and direction of travel on Falcon Lake. Their description and position was radioed to Los Zetas members on the Mexican side of the lake, after which the couple was apparently confronted by Zetas enforcers.
STRATFOR sources say the attack on the Hartleys was not authorised by more senior members of Los Zetas, and therefore a damage control campaign is currently under way, led by Los Zetas No. 2 Miguel “Z-40” Trevino Morales, to identify and eliminate those who engaged the Hartleys without proper authorization. As with any conflict involving Los Zetas, there is a certain protocol when dealing with deceased targets, which typically involves disposing of the body promptly to ensure no evidence can be brought against the group or its members, though frequently they will leave bodies, dump them or use them — or parts of them — as messages (like the head of Flores Villegas). STRATFOR sources have indicated that once Hartley was identified as an American, his body was destroyed the same day as the incident to prevent a backlash from the U.S. government against the group. With the heavy diplomatic and public pressure on both U.S. and Mexican authorities to find David Hartley’s remains in the investigation, the decapitation of Flores Villegas was a stern signal to both the United States and Mexico that no body will be produced and to leave the situation alone.
The cartels do not normally target American citizens not involved in the narcotics trade, but cases of mistaken identity have occurred in the past. They rarely have achieved the level of publicity the Hartley case has, however. Ignoring warnings of armed men operating on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake and travelling several miles illegally into Mexican territory at a time when the Gulf cartel and the Los Zetas organisation are in a war is a recipe for disaster. As STRATFOR has noted before, when backed into corner the Mexican cartels have shown themselves to be incredibly resilient and forceful and will lash out strongly against any and all perceived threats to their operations and personnel.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
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