MEXICO CITY (AP) — In a strange and aggressive attack by Mexican federal police on a U.S. Embassy vehicle that was pumped with 152 bullets, one major question remains: Why?
Mexican investigators are looking for the answer from five police commanders who are accused of ordering 14 officers to lie about what happened on Aug. 24 south of Mexico City, where two CIA officers and a Mexican Navy captain came under heavy fire while travelling in an armored SUV clearly marked by diplomatic plates.
The police officers, who wounded the Americans and face attempted murder charges, initially said they were in uniform and marked cars, and responded to fire from the SUV. But details of the attorney general's investigation released Sunday said they were in plains clothes, unmarked vehicles (including two of their personal cars) and under order at all times from their commanding officers.
"Commanders controlled by whom? Whose instructions were they following?" said one Mexican official with knowledge of the case.
The attorney general's office continues to investigate possible connections between the attack and organized crime, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Indeed the case is sensitive, not only between two giant and intricately linked nations sharing a 2,000-mile border, but also inside Mexico, where the federal police and attorney general's office have used competing media outlets to publicly accuse each other of lying.
Federal police fired on the SUV because "they didn't stop to think, and everyone just kept firing," federal police chief Maribel Cervantes told Radio Formula on Monday. "They didn't follow protocol. But in no way have we found anything to indicate that this was anything planned."
She said the officers reported to only one of the five commanders facing charges. The 14 officers have been held over for trial. One commander was charged last week with giving false information and released on bail. The other four are fighting their arrest warrants.
The U.S. Embassy is uncharacteristically quiet, given the normal U.S. outrage over attacks on Americans working on foreign soil, from the killing this year of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi to the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico nearly 28 years ago.
The CIA officers didn't receive life-threatening wounds and the navy officer was unharmed.
"We don't comment on an ongoing investigation," said Alex Featherstone, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. "This is a matter of great importance to both countries and we will continue to cooperate with Mexican authorities."
The massive hunt for and prosecution of Camarena's killers in 1985 are still cited as the main deterrent for Mexican criminals who think of messing with U.S. agents, making the August attack even more inexplicable. U.S.-Mexican relations have become even tighter since then. And analysts say there is too much at stake for both countries to let one incident stain the bilateral bigger picture.
In addition to unprecedented cooperation between the two countries in fighting drugs and organized crime, foreign direct investment between Mexico and the U.S. has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. Mexico is the United States' second-largest export market, and one in 24 Americans depend on trade with Mexico for their jobs, according to a 2011 report by the Washington-based Mexico Institute.
"Both governments have invested time, resources and credibility in building a security partnership that didn't exist five to six years ago. They don't want to see that undermined by the malfeasance or stupidity of individuals," said Andrew Selee, Mexico Institute director. "It's a conscious attempt to compartmentalize and deal with specific incidents on merits rather than dynamiting the overall relationship."
Federal police still insist they were investigating the kidnapping of a government official the morning of the shooting, even though assistant federal prosecutor Victoria Pacheco Jimenez said kidnapping is a state crime, not federal, and there is no evidence anywhere that federal police were asked to help in the case.
All the gunfire came from the federal police weapons, discounting police statements that the embassy vehicle fired first, Pacheco said in a Sunday press conference. The bullet-proofed embassy SUV was chased under fire and struck by 152 bullets, 40 percent of them pumped into the driver and passenger-side windows after the vehicle had come to a stop.
Federal police initially called the attack a case of mistaken identity, though Cervantes no longer mentioned that angle on Monday.
A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press in early October that there was strong circumstantial evidence that the officers were working for organized crime in a targeted assassination attempt. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The rural road where the attack took place near Cuernavaca is known territory of the remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel.