Search for American tourist reported shot on border lake thwarted by threats from drug gangs

By April Castro, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Search for man missing on lake thwarted by gangs

ZAPATA, Texas — U.S. officials say the search for an American tourist reportedly shot dead on a border lake by Mexican pirates has been hampered by threats of an ambush from drug gangs.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas said the search for David Hartley was temporarily halted Wednesday evening as Mexican officials “worried about being ambushed.”

He said the search resumed Thursday morning, but Mexican searchers are “doing this under threat of their lives.”

Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez says the area where the shooting allegedly happened while Hartley and his wife explored the lake on Jet Skies is a stronghold of the Zeta drug gang. Gonzalez says he’s sent word to Zetas that he wants the body returned and has no plans to prosecute.

Cuellar and two other area congressmen say Mexico is “doing the best that they can.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

ZAPATA, Texas (AP) — An air and water search is on for the American tourist reportedly shot dead on a border lake by Mexican pirates, authorities there said Thursday, two days after Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for a more action.

Ruben Rios, spokesman for prosecutors in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, said the search began Wednesday but was suspended in the evening because of bad weather. He said it resumed Thursday morning.

“We have people looking by air and in the lake but so far they have found nothing,” Rios said.

The Mexican Foreign Relations Ministry said Wednesday they had been coordinating a search “from the first moment” Tiffany Hartley reported her husband was shot last week as they rode Jet Skis across Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. But Rios’s comment suggests the search didn’t begin until after Perry called Mexican authorities late Tuesday.

Perry urged Mexican authorities to have Calderon call him within 48 hours to update him on the hunt for David Hartley’s body.

Rios said Tamaulipas authorities have not opened an investigation into Hartley’s death because they don’t have a formal complaint. He said they were helping with the search, with U.S. authorities, as a courtesy to Zapata County, Texas, officials.

“There isn’t a complaint, there isn’t a body, we don’t have anything to go on and open an investigation,” he said.

However, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas released briefing papers shortly before a joint U.S.-Mexico news conference that said U.S. consular officers had accompanied Tiffany Hartley to the Mexican consulate in McAllen, Texas, to file a Mexican federal complaint.

“The federal complaint now allows Mexican federal authorities to join the search,” Cuellar’s briefing book said.

Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez has said he called the Mexican consulate on Sept. 30 to report the incident.

At a Thursday campaign event in Houston, Perry said he wasn’t satisfied with the Mexican response. He said he believed the search was suspended Wednesday evening because of fears of drug cartels in the area, a claim Rios flatly denied.

“I don’t think we’re doing enough. When you call off the search the way they did … and give as the reason because the drug cartels are in control of that part of the state, something’s not right,” Perry said.

Drug war violence has spread in the last few months from Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war across from El Paso, Texas, to the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, including Tamaulipas state where Hartley reportedly disappeared. Two drug gangs, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, are battling for supremacy there and fighting the Mexican military.

Falcon Lake is a dammed section of the Rio Grande, 25 miles long and 3 miles across, that has been plagued by pirates who rob boaters and fisherman who wander into Mexican waters. Texas officials have warned fisherman and boaters to avoid the lake. Hartley’s death would be the first killing there.

The Hartley family has said Mexican authorities are not doing enough to find their relative’s body. U.S. authorities are unable to investigate Hartley’s disappearance because it happened in Mexico, although Rios said Americans were aiding in Thursday’s search.

“As long as David’s not home, enough hasn’t been done,” said his mother, Pam Hartley.

Tiffany Hartley has said she and her husband were sightseeing when he was shot in the head by three men chasing them in speedboats and that he fell off his Jet Ski and into the lake. Game wardens escorted her and several relatives members out onto Falcon Lake to lay a large wreath of orange and yellow flowers in the water Wednesday.

“It was very emotional because I know he’s out there and we just all want him back so we can give him the proper goodbye,” she said at a news conference later.

Perry has told The Associated Press that if Hartley’s body has not been retrieved by the time he hears from Calderon, then “we’re not looking hard enough.” He said Mexican Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Julian Ventura had been accommodating during talks earlier this week. Perry said he had not heard from Calderon as of noon Thursday.

Tiffany Hartley has said she was disheartened by comments from state officials in Mexico suggesting she was lying about how her husband died.

“I know what I know,” she said. “I know what I saw.”

Associated Press writers Olga Rodriguez in Mexico City and Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

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