OTR Interviews

ICE Agent's Killing in Mexico: A Wakeup Call to Washington on Border Security and Violence?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," February 16, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: This is a "Fox News Alert." Well, they knew it! Gunmen in Mexico knew the two men were U.S. federal agents when they opened fire, murdering one agent in cold blood and critically hurting the other. Now, it happened in broad daylight on a Mexican highway near Mexico City. The gunmen chased the two federal ICE agents down the highway, cornered the agents in their armored SUV, opened fire, murdering one American ICE agent and injuring the other.

Mexican correspondent for The Houston Chronicle Dudley Althaus joins us on Skype. Dudley, what are the additional facts we're learning today about this shooting, this murder?

DUDLEY ALTHAUS, HOUSTON CHRONICLE: Well, two agents had been up in northern Mexico, about 250 miles north of Mexico City, meeting with colleagues and were on their way back to Mexico City, apparently, when this happened yesterday afternoon. They were driving an official car with diplomatic plates. It's unclear whether the assailants knew what diplomatic plates were. And it seems that they did know these guys were U.S. agents, but there's still a little bit of debate about that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do they know anything about the suspects? I mean, I assume that maybe it's possible somebody knew something, someone's taking credit. Is this part of a drug cartel, any information at all?

ALTHAUS: No, no one's taking credit, but the general feeling is that these were the Zetas, the gang that's based along the south Texas border. That has been pretty much active in this San Luis Potosi area where this happened. The Zetas have been rampaging pretty throughout northern and northeastern Mexico. And San Luis Potosi, they've been having a lot of clashes with military in the past few weeks.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dudley, these two agents apparently had stopped for lunch. Do you know if they had had any -- -met up with the murderers at that point, you know, where the murderers start trailing them?

ALTHAUS: Well, former federal agents that my colleague, Dane Schiller, spoke with out of Houston, who have seen the reports of the incident, said that they'd actually -- the assailants picked the agents right after lunch, at lunch, and kind of tailed them for a while, moved forward a few miles ahead of the agents going done the highway, and then kind of boxed them in on the highway. This is a very busy highway, one of busiest, I think, probably in Mexico. It connects Mexico City with the Texas border. And so there had to be a lot of traffic on that highway. But they boxed them in and forced them off the road.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dudley, my -- information I have is that they were in an armored SUV, which means one of two things. Either they were so overpowered with automatic -- or with weapons that it could break through the armor, or the door was open? Any information as to how they were able to kill one and shoot the other?

ALTHAUS: People who have seen the reports said that as -- when the agent -- when Agent Zapata turned off -- put the car in park, the doors automatically unlocked, and the assailants grabbed the doors and opened them. The agents were able to shut the door again, but then they apparently rolled down the window slightly to talk with the guys, who -- the gunmen outside, and the gunmen shot through and hit Zapata and Agent Avila.

VAN SUSTEREN: Any words -- the surviving agent, did he hear them say anything?

ALTHAUS: The surviving agent, no. But I assume that the report is based on his witness account. And he's been released from the hospital in Houston as of today, this afternoon.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dudley, thank you.

Our next guest is a congressman from Texas. His district is along the border and includes Laredo. The special agent shot and killed yesterday was based in Laredo before his transfer to Mexico City. Texas congressman Henry Cuellar joins us live.

Good evening, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: Sir, I mean, it's just -- it's astounding, two federal agents targeted.

CUELLAR: Well, you know, one of the things that they're doing right now -- and I've been -- talked to the assistant secretary, John Morton, about this last night about this, talked to Secretary Napolitano in person this morning about this. And what they're going to be doing, if they haven't done this already, but as of this afternoon, they were going to debrief the agent that had been flown to Texas so they can get that because there's been different accounts. And what they wanted to do is hear directly from him. So if they don't have that information right now, they should have it by tomorrow for sure.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, is this a tipping point? I mean, we've been -- every -- almost for two years here on "On the Record' -- we've even traveled with Secretary of State Clinton to Mexico. But this is now -- now it's a federal agent, and you know, it's a horrible -- it's a horrible thing that's happened to this agent and his family, but it does amp up this, does it not?

CUELLAR: Well, you know, one of the things that we're seeing -- in 1985, when the drug cartels captured, tortured, killed Kiki Camerera, they went after him. We don't know at this time whether it was low-level folks that were -- had other motives or whether it was something that was done from higher up. We don't know. But if it was done intentionally, you're talking about the rules have changed over there. We don't know yet. This is why we need to make sure we get that information.

VAN SUSTEREN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Mexico is like Colombia of 20 years ago, rebuked by President Calderon and President Obama for saying it. They say she's wrong. Is she right or is she wrong?

CUELLAR: She's correct. Yes, I know there are some differences. I understand all that, there are some differences. But you got to keep in mind what's happening across the river. We got 2,000 miles of border with Mexico, 2,000 miles of border. And we're talking about the GAO report as to what is under control by our border patrol on their side. And there's -- you know, there's a lot of questions as to what's in control.

There's two things we got to look at, Greta. One, we got to stop the violence from spilling over to the U.S. side, number one. And number two, in my opinion, we got to go in and send agents. We got about 30 agents over there in Mexico. We want to go ahead and add more agents that they have right now. And this is how we can go ahead and help them.

VAN SUSTEREN: So that the American people understand how bad this is -- and Steve Harrigan, one of my colleagues, has covered wars. He said this is as bad as any war. When we sat down, we talked about the violence here and you told me about the beheading, a revenge beheading. You know, Tell the viewers what this is.

CUELLAR: Well, you know, they're doing a lot of things. They're using car bombing, and we see this in other parts of the world. We're seeing beheadings. They put them on the YouTube and they -- just to send the signal out. In the past, the rules that they had was that they would never attack men and women -- I mean, women and children. Just recently, they just beheaded I believe a two, three-month-old baby as a revenge killing.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's just astounding. I mean, the violence is just overwhelming, and it's terrible that now we've -- now one of our agents is down. Congressman, thank you, sir.

CUELLAR: Thank you so much.

VAN SUSTEREN: Somebody is really wrong. It's either three mayors in Arizona or Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Check this out. A new Government Accountability Office that the congressman just mentioned says the border patrol has operational control of only 44 percent of the southern border, and only 15 percent of our border is airtight. Despite that GAO report, three mayors in Arizona are stomping all over Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, saying that he is scaring people when he says the border is unsafe. They even wrote the sheriff a letter and said he should be quiet. The mayors say the sheriff is making the situation seem worse than it really is. But it doesn't look like Sheriff Babeu is going to put the lid on.

He's right here to go "On the Record" from Phoenix. Good evening, Sheriff. And your thoughts tonight as we report about what is going on now. An ICE agent has been murdered in Mexico.

PAUL BABEU, PINAL COUNTY, ARIZONA, SHERIFF: Good evening, Greta. It's not surprising. And it's not going to get better, it's going to get worse. And if these three mayors want to drink the Kool-Aid of Janet Napolitano, Eric Holder and Barack Obama, go right ahead.

The reality is that we have had in my county -- Pinal County is the number one pass-through county for drug and human smuggling in all of America. We have seen confiscation of drugs more than double, our calls to the border patrol more than double. We have seen pursuits go from 140 high-speed vehicle chase, of cop cars chasing after these bad guys, to 340 just in one of my patrol regions.

I used to say there's 25 to 50 lookout posts where cartel member scouts are owning high points or mountains in my county, 70 miles north of the border. And we just had a briefing. I sat with Senator McCain. And people who work for Janet Napolitano briefed us and said it's no longer that. It's more than doubled to at least 75, as many as 100 mountains in America where these cartels provide safe passage for these -- for their drug trafficking. How have we arrived at a point in America that this is going on?

VAN SUSTEREN: Sheriff -- (INAUDIBLE) it's Babeu. You've been on here a number of times, you'd think I'd get your name right by now.


VAN SUSTEREN: Anyway, sorry, Sheriff. But what's so stunning...

BABEU: That's fine, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... is this letter that the mayors sent you, is one of the things that they're critical of you and want you to basically shut up, is that they say that what you're saying damages our economy, as though we should hide what is going on right across the border. And according to the government's own report, if 44 percent of the border patrol has operational control, what about the other 56 percent? That's what nobody's talking about, and I guess that's what you're upset about.

BABEU: Yes. And the reason why they want me to sit down and shut up, which by the way, I'm not going to do, I'm going to stand up and defend America and defend our families here in Arizona -- is because, they want to have everybody be quiet because if we say the emperor has no clothes, then we can't have this discussion about immigration reform, which many of us fear is outright amnesty. And we're going to stop that from happening in America!

Why is our own federal government fighting us, taking us to court, still to this day, that they reported us to the United Nations, they put up signs in my county warning our own citizens not to travel in parts of America? And why don't they start helping us? Why don't they help us here in Arizona?

VAN SUSTEREN: Sheriff, I will say -- I will defend ICE, John Morton and Secretary Napolitano because I've traveled with them. I've talked to them. They are doing more than has been done before. The problem is, is that they are not -- they are not doing enough and the cannot do enough because they are not getting the resources from the United States Congress. I've seen these people work around the clock. I know they're hustling to do as much as they can. But they simply don't have the manpower and the resources.

BABEU: Well, what they should do is implement the McCain-Kyl 10-point border security plan. This is not solved with hiring more border patrol agents. It's solved -- and I'm speaking as a former military commander -- by deploying 6,000 armed soldiers to the border, build the double-barrier fence that Barack Obama has suspended, and then this novel concept of enforcing our laws.

Senate bill 1070, employer sanctions, all these things are tinkering with the real problem of border security. And this is no longer a public safety concern. This is now a national security threat, that if we don't wake up, this is going to bite us bad!

VAN SUSTEREN: It already is. And you should tell that to the family of the agent who is now dead who has been murdered, an American ICE agent. And the ones who are suing state of Arizona is the federal government. It is the Justice Department. And it would behoove everyone to focus on the real problem and address it, rather than just going after Arizona. Sheriff, thank you, sir. And good luck, sir.

BABEU: Agreed. Thanks, Greta.