Members of Mexican drug cartels have been ordered to shoot and kill U.S. agents using AK-47 assault rifles from across the border, according to law enforcement bulletins.
The chilling death threat targeting U.S. immigration and customs agents was revealed Thursday during a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Word of the plot came amid proceedings before a House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, a department rocked by the murders of four border agents in the last three years.
Their rank-and-file colleagues hope the threat made public will galvanize some fresh strategic thinking, and decisive tactical responses.
"The shooting of special agents Zapata and Avila is a game changer which alters the landscape of the involvement of the United States in Mexico's war against the drug cartels," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, (R) Texas, chairman of the subcommittee. "For the first time in 25 years, the cartels are now targeting American law enforcement."
Immigration & Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata was fatally shot by narco-cartel gunmen in a February 15 ambush in interior Mexico that left his partner, Victor Avila, gravely wounded.
More than 200 stateside drug traffickers were soon rounded up, including eight in San Diego.
A $5 million government reward is now out on the triggermen.
But from here to Texas, the U.S. Mexico border remains dangerous territory.
"And in my judgment," said McCaul, "the Mexicans are losing this war. And so are we."
Among the worrisome questions that arise from the hearing: How will bullets coming across the border from the south affect the rules of engagement? And what impact will all this have on the mindset of agents who could be in the line of fire?
"This is a low-intensity war that's taking place on our southern border, and we need to treat it as such," said Shawn Moran, vice president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents rank-and-file agents. "I think the rules of engagement kind of do hamstring us, in that this isn't the military."
Moran said agents can't help but worry about the prospect of innocent civilians -- situated near, or used as shields by cartel snipers -- being wounded or killed in a cross-border firefight.
"It becomes a political football," Moran remarked. "And the Border Patrol and Homeland Security, they back down whenever they get pressure from the Mexican government or immigrant rights groups."
Customs & Border Protection officials declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying, in part:
"CBP takes any potential threat against our frontline men and women very seriously. That is why we work closely with the intelligence community and law enforcement partners every day to make sure that our personnel are constantly informed of any information -- even uncorroborated -- regarding potential threats they may face."