Border lake shooting: A case of mistaken identity?

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by ALEXANDRA OLSON

Associated Press

Posted on October 15, 2010 at 12:39 AM

Falcon Lake

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — The American tourist who reportedly was shot and killed by Mexican pirates on a border lake may have been a victim of mistaken identity, a U.S. consulate official said Thursday.

"I think what you had is two innocent American tourists who mistakenly stumbled into a bad area and were pursued and the shooting occurred," said Brian Quigley, spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

Quigley was responding to a report by Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based public policy research group that analyzes the Mexican drug war. The report suggests that David and Tiffany Hartley of McAllen, Texas, may have been mistaken for drug runners and attacked.

Mexico suspended its search for David Hartley indefinitely on Thursday, an official said.

"There is a recess," Ruben Dario Rios Lopez, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office in Tamaulipas, told The Monitor of McAllen in a copyright story in its online edition Thursday. "We are going to look into new strategies between both U.S. and Mexican authorities in order to see what we can do, because up to now we have not been able to recover the body of this person."

Calls by The Associated Press to Rios' office in the Tamaulipas capital, Ciudad Victoria, were not answered Thursday night. An officer who answered the phone at the Tamaulipas state police office in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, near the lake, said he was not allowed to comment. Calls and messages left with Texas Gov. Rick Perry's staff were not returned.

Tiffany Hartley says that on Sept. 30, she and her husband, David, were returning to the United States from Mexico where they went to photograph a historic, half-submerged church.

They were crossing Falcon Lake on Jet Skis when pirates who patrol the Mexican half of the lake opened fire, shooting David in the back of the head. Tiffany Hartley says she barely escaped with her life after vain attempts to save her husband while men on three speedboats pursued them, firing their guns.

Texas officials have warned boaters to stay away from the Mexican side of the lake after several fishermen were robbed earlier this year. Hartley's death was the first violent attack on the lake, which was created by damming a section of the Rio Grande.

The Stratfor report says the Hartleys' truck holding the Jet Skis had Tamaulipas, Mexico, license plates, which may have led pirates or drug gangsters to think they were from a rival gang and were spying on them.

The Hartleys lived in Reynosa, Mexico, a city across the border from McAllen, until recently, when David Hartley's employer, an oil and gas company, decided it was too dangerous for them to live in Mexico.

Tamaulipas state is the center of a violent rivalry between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, a brutal drug gang made up of former Mexican special-forces soldiers. The search for Hartley's body has been repeatedly hampered by threats of an ambush from drug gangs, presumably the Zetas.

This week, a state police commander in Tamaulipas, Rolando Flores, who was investigating the Hartley disappearance, was killed, his decapitated head delivered in a suitcase to a local Mexican army post.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the investigator's killing Thursday, calling it an example of "the absolute barbarity" displayed by terrorists and criminals around the world.

Clinton, traveling in Europe, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the U.S. government is doing everything possible to help the Hartley family.

"The beheaded body of the brave Mexican investigator that just showed up shows what we're dealing with," Clinton said.

Mexican authorities say they don't know if Flores' death was related to the Hartley case because he was working on numerous investigations involving drug gangs. The killings of police officials have become common in Mexico.

Quigley said there is "a possibility" that there is a connection.

Although no sign of Hartley or his Jet Ski have been found after more than a week of searching the lake, Quigley and local officials in Texas say they still believe Tiffany Hartley's story. The Stratfor report theorized that once the killers realized Hartley was an American, they destroyed the body to avoid a U.S. backlash.

"We have absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt anything Mrs. Hartley has told us," Quigley said.

A search for a Mexican citizen would have been called off after three days, said Bolivar Hernandez, a mid-level official with the Tamaulipas Attorney General's Office, told The Monitor. Still, word of the suspension surprised Hartley's family.

"If that's true, that upsets me, to know that maybe the cartel's getting their way," said Pam Hartley, David's Hartley's mother.

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Associated Press Writer Judith Kohler in Denver, Colorado, contributed to this report.

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