Image: Tiffany Hartley
Eric Gay  /  AP
Tiffany Hartley, left, and family members, lay a wreath Oct. 6 near the site where her husband, David Hartley, was shot last month on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas.
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updated 10/13/2010 5:38:59 PM ET 2010-10-13T21:38:59

Despite a bloody drug war raging just across the border, some Americans living near Mexico act as if it's still a backyard playground.

In the last two weeks alone, two American tourists have been killed in Mexico in vicious attacks — one while riding a Jet Ski and another when his bus was hijacked. And a Mexican police commander investigating one of those deaths was killed this week, his severed head delivered in a suitcase to a local Army post.

But Texas officials keep encouraging boaters to enjoy the bass fishing on a border lake. And Gov. Rick Perry has not urged people to take any special precautions, suggesting only that U.S. and Mexican authorities increase the law enforcement presence in the area.

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"There's like a psychological aspect to these kinds of warnings, that folks just don't take them seriously, or perhaps they believe the authorities are simply issuing these for liability reasons," said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence for Stratfor Global Intelligence, which analyzes the drug war.

"There are people that say, 'Well, I know this area. I'm comfortable. Nothing will ever happen to me.'"

Tiffany and David Hartley may have been two of those people. They were working in Reynosa, a Mexican border town rife with drug violence, when Hartley's company moved them to McAllen, Texas, just across the Rio Grande, for safety.

Story: Missing jet skier's wife won't return to Mexico

The couple decided to take Jet Skis across Falcon Lake, which is divided by the border, to photograph a historic church. They were on their way home when pirates opened fire, killing Hartley, according to Tiffany Hartley.

Just days later, a student from the University of Texas-Brownsville was shot and killed in Mexico. Jonathan William Torres, 19, was one of two people killed when his bus was hijacked in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville.

David Hartley's father, Dennis, said his son was not aware of any violence on the lake.

"My son is a history buff. He wanted to get a picture of that church. Not hearing of any recent activity there, David and Tiffany decided to go there and snap some pictures."

The State Department has issued repeated travel warnings to Americans traveling to or living in Mexico, with a particular focus on the area just south of the border. The warnings say that kidnappings are occurring at "alarming rates" with U.S. citizens often the target.

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In response, Texas universities have canceled their sponsored spring break trips across the border and have warned spring breakers at South Padre Island near the border not to cross into Mexico.

In May, the Texas Department of Public Safety warned boaters to avoid the international boundary that zig-zags through Falcon Lake, which is 25 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest point. The warnings came after men armed with assault rifles twice robbed fishermen on the Mexican side of the lake. They traveled in the low-slung, underpowered commercial Mexican fishing boats that are familiar here. They asked for money, drugs and guns, and took what cash was available. No one was hurt.

Even as the headlines carry grisly reports of murders and torture, thousands of Americans still trek across the border for work and to visit family.

"People here on the border go back and forth all the time," said state Rep. Aaron Pena, who represents a portion of the border near his hometown of Edinburg. "Many people have to go because they have family over there. Funerals happen, weddings happen, grandmas get sick or they have businesses over there. For many of them, they feel safe because they live it daily. But it can strike you in a moment."

In the days after Hartley disappeared, Texas officials stood on the shore of Falcon Lake and encouraged Texas boaters to enjoy the fishing on the American side. Officials insist the lake is safe, as long as boats stay in U.S. waters. The border is marked only by buoys.

"As far as I know, it's fine if you stay on the U.S. side," said Rob McCorkle, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Traditionally, it's been a very good bass fishing lake."

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Still, Perry says many Texans living on the border, particularly farmers and ranchers, understand and respect the threat.

"I don't know that the city dwellers have engaged, but the rural dwellers, I promise you, the vast majority of those people understand the threat for their safety," Perry said.

The disappearance of Hartley and the decapitation of Tamaulipas State Police Commander Rolando Flores did not even make major news in Mexico, where the drug war has killed more than 28,000 people since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006. More than 2,000 of those have been police.

Leading Mexican daily El Universal noted Flores' death in the last two sentences of a story on violent events Tuesday in Tamaulipas state, including the kidnapping of four university students and a series of shootouts that killed 12 people.

"Unfortunately, this is nothing new," Perry said. "Mr. Hartley, the UT student murdered over there, now this commander, all this in a two-week period of time, and this is a direct threat to people in communities on the border, including Texas."

___

Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Investigator in Texas lake case decapitated

  1. Closed captioning of: Investigator in Texas lake case decapitated

    >>> interview.

    >>> the disturbing new development tied to the murder of an american tourist allegedly by mexican pirates. the mexican police commander investigating that shooting has now been murdered. janet shanlian is in mccowan, texas with more.

    >> reporter: this story has taken a very dark turn, the lead investigator in the case has been decapitated and his served head delivered in a suitcase to the mexican military . what started as one couple's personal tragedy has now turned into a sign of mexico 's escalating drug war and its spillover right here. what was supposed to be one couple's fun day on the water has turned into an international incident , shining a bright light on the escalating violence in the mexican drug war , as the investigation into the murder of david hartley grinds on for two weeks now, grim news tuesday, a local mexican police commander, the lead investigator on the case was found dead, decapitated.

    >> this officer was an innocent victim of the ongoing drug wars in mexico .

    >> reporter: and the escalating war has hampered the search for david 's body. they had to suspend the search because of threats from mexican drug cartels who have taken control of the area. david 's wife tiffany is concerned about mexico 's handling of the search for david .

    >> until we get some more footage and video or pictures that say this is what they're doing, you know, we're just kind of hoping and praying they're doing what they say they're doing.

    >> reporter: two brothers were suspected in david 's murder. and the documents reportedly came from the same mexican official that was savagely killed.

    >> again, directly involved with the supposed identification of the suspect. i believe the death of this investigator is very much linked to the death of david hartley .

    >> reporter: for david 's grieving family, it's just another horrible loss.

    >> it's just a terrible, terrible, another terrible tragedy adding to what we're going through.

    >> reporter: david and tiffany 's outing two weeks ago was supposed to be their last adventure in texas before heading to colorado. the couple seen here eight years ago at their wedding, happy moments captured on video, now all tiffany has left. mexican officials vow to continue the search, but the family's hopes are fading that david 's body will ever be found.

    >> i think he will not be found. falcon lake will more than likely be his headstone.

    >> reporter: the murdered investigator is the one who had named two suspects in the case. high ranking mexican officials said there were no suspects at all and today those same officials are saying this murder is in no way related to the jet ski murders.

    >> david hartley 's wife and his mother are with us this morning. tiffany , let's start with you, this has to be devastated news, first to lose your husband and then to find out that the led investigator on this case has been beheaded. what was your reaction when you first heard the news?

    >> my heart broke. i can't even explain. i mean i'm grieving him too, the loss of him because i mean i met him, i was sitting next to him through a translator talking to him and you know describing where david was at and i just grieve for his family and my heart just aches for his family because they're now having to go through what we're going through. and just like everybody says to me, there just aren't any words to explain how sorry i am and how much i hurt for his family.

    >> does this man's name rolando flores villaga, what are your impressions of him?

    >> he seemed like he really wanted to help and i believe he was helping us and you could just tell that he wanted to be able to serve his country and he was doing a job that isn't easy over there. especially in the field that he was in. but he seemed very sincere and compassionate.

    >> are you worried now tiffany that this will have a chilling effect an the investigation, perhaps the mexican authorities will be worrieded about continuing with it?

    >> i don't know. i don't know. but we do still, are under the impression that they are going to continue their search and that, you know, they're going to keep doing what they have been doing so as far as you know, seeing the investigation, i don't really think that that's going to happen, but i can't really speak for him, i don't know.

    >> pam , by the same token --

    >> i hope it doesn't.

    >> absolutely, but by the same token, you have to be concerned that someone else could get hurt in the course of this search for your son?

    >> yes. i mean, david , you know, wouldn't want anybody to get hurt for him. but it's -- -it has to continue that they find people that have been -- that are missing and if they need to -- they need to get control of that area. and it's like i don't want anybody to get hurt an my heart breaks for their family.

    >> david 's dad has said that he does not believe that his son's body will ever be found. pam , do you remain hopeful that they will find david ?

    >> yes. i stand strong that god will make this happen. it was -- david will come home.

    >> i think we're all in agreement with that here. we're still standing in our belief and standing in faith that, you know, he will be brought home and we can honor him the way he would want to be.

    >> tiffany , mexican authorities have said that they would like you to go to mexico to file a formal report in order to have more details about this case. is that something that you are considering? will you go to mexico ?

    >> no. no, i will not go to mexico . they -- we have filled out the paper work that they told us that we had to fill out. we spent 4 1/2 hours after their office and we were assured that they were going to get the paper work to mexico city to the authorities there and they were going to be taking them to ranosa that same day. but no, i will not go to mexico .

    >> are you worried for your own safety if you were to go to mexico ?

    >> yeah, we're all under agreement that that is not a wise decision. that who knows what would happen if i do go over there?

    >> all right, tiffany and pam hartley, thank you very much. we really appreciate you being with us this morning.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >>> and let's turn to nbc news analyst clint van zandt who's a former fbi profiler. good morning to you. mexican authorities say there's no connection between the death of this lead investigator and the investigation into the whereabouts and possible death of david hartley ? what do you make of that.

    >> i don't know. we know that this man was the lead investigator, we know that these two cartel members that were identified, this was work by men working for him, investigators working for him. life was so challenged down there, for example, over 50 americans have been killed just the first six months of this year along the u.s.- mexican border . this is a total that may well surpass last year's total of 80 and this terrible method and way he was murdered, decapitation, meredith, this is taking a page out of al qaeda 's playbook that these drug cartels have been doing for about the last three or four years now trying to come up with the most grotesque form of murder they can to intimidate authorities and to intimidate the citizens of mexico .

    >> so is it possible authorities are saying that because they feel intimidate.

    >> yeah and i think they are. we saw just last week on the "today" show when the sheriff was interviewed, the u.s. sheriff saying that he didn't want to send people into those waters, they might get into a gun battle, now you have potentially u.s. forces , sheriff, intimidated, the message has been sent to the mexican authorities, to the police, i believe if you investigate this case, you're going to die, you know, few of the homicide of americans this year or any year for that matter are really solved. so the chances of this case being solved with these two alleged members of a drug cartel , remember, these are two main mexican cartels that are fighting each other for control of the drugs that flow into the united states and any american that gets in the way, i'm afraid could meet a similar fate.

    >> do you think that tiffany is wise not to go to mexico ? that she would be in possible danger if she were to go, even though they're asking her to go?

    >> i think she's making a personal choice right now, but with the murder, with the killing of that lead mexican police official, i think she's probably making a prudent choice. she's done everything she can, we all want to see this crime solved and her husband brought home again, but again i think the chances are pretty slim since the mexicans took a week before they really mounted an investigation to begin with.

    >> clint van zandt , appreciate your perspective this morning. thank you very much.

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