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Drug gang shot U.S. agents, Mexican governor says

Mexican drug gang hitmen shot two U.S., the governor of the state where the men were attacked says. That could be a major provocation to the United States.
A car of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents is seen next to a truck in Ojo Caliente
A car carrying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with its rear window damaged by bullet impacts, is seen next to a Mexican federal police truck in Ojo Caliente, near San Luis Potosi, February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Courtesy of El PulsoStringer/mexico / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

Mexican drug gang hitmen shot two U.S. immigration and customs agents, the governor of the state where the men were attacked said Wednesday. If the allegation proves true, it could be a major provocation to the United States.

One Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed and a second was wounded in the suspected ambush on Tuesday, which comes against a backdrop of spiraling violence between Mexican security forces and drug cartels.

"There was an attack where drug gang members ... tried to kill two U.S. officials on a federal highway," San Luis Potosi state governor Fernando Toranzo said in a radio interview.

Washington has provided funds, training and political support for Mexican President Felipe Calderon's army-led strategy to crush the cartels, and U.S. intelligence is believed to have played a major role in the killing or capture of several top leaders in recent years.

If the U.S. government identifies a gang responsible for the attack on the agents, it is likely to focus its intelligence work on trying to catch its leaders.

More than 15,000 people were killed in drug violence in Mexico last year as fighting between the cartels and security forces spread to cities once considered distant from the front lines of the drug war, including Monterrey.

Many details of the attack on the ICE agents were still unclear. ICE said on Wednesday the men were traveling in an armored vehicle from Monterrey to Mexico City, contradicting earlier reports they were traveling to Monterrey.

The Mexican federal prosecutor's office said it was investigating the attack but had not yet had the chance to interview the survivor, who has already been taken back to the United States and is in stable condition.

A U.S. official said a wide inter-agency investigation was already underway.

Attacks on U.S. government personnel are rare in Mexico and the targeting of U.S. agents could represent a significant escalation of the drug war.

Two U.S. citizens and a Mexican linked to staff at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez were killed in March last year, prompting the State Department to tighten security at its diplomatic missions in northern Mexico.

Officials have not said which of Mexico's drug cartels may have been behind the latest attack, although many suspect the Zetas, a group led by renegade Mexican soldiers and widely seen as the most brutal of the gangs.

"The United States is going to have to make a quick evaluation of the security of its officials in Mexico. Was it wise for these agents to be traveling in a shiny black vehicle along a highway controlled by the Zetas?" said Fred Burton of intelligence consultancy Stratfor.

The two agents may have been ambushed after stopping at a fake military checkpoint, said a Mexican official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

The cartels have been known to set up official-looking checkpoints, and the official said Mexican security forces had no checkpoints in the area.