STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's report next on a security matter much closer to home - the U.S. border with Mexico. Three weeks ago, an American tourist was apparently shot while riding a jet ski on a lake that is divided between Texas and Mexico. Authorities believe drug cartel gunmen killed David Hartley in Mexican waters, before his wife sped back to the Texas side to save her own life.
Last week, the Mexican investigator looking into this crime was himself gruesomely murdered, authorities believe by traffickers. And these deaths have scared away tourists from Zapata, Texas, where NPR's John Burnett picks up the story.
JOHN BURNETT: The big question is still: Why did cartel gunmen apparently shoot at an American couple on jet skis out sightseeing on a Mexican lake? This is the 911 call.
Unidentified Woman (Emergency Dispatcher): Are you sure that your husband got shot?
Ms. TIFFANY HARTLEY: Yes, in his head.
Unidentified Woman (Emergency Dispatcher): OK.
Ms. HARTLEY: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman (Emergency Dispatcher): Was he thrown out of the jet ski that he's in the water or something?
Ms. HARTLEY: Yeah, he was thrown off jet ski and I couldn't pick him up to get him on mine.
Unidentified Woman (Emergency Dispatcher): Uh-huh.
BURNETT: Were Tiffany Hartley and her husband David mistaken for rival gang members, taking pictures where they shouldn't have been? Or was violence used in an attempt to steal their jet skis? A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the border, and of Tiffany Hartley's account, says the current theory is that the Hartleys ran into three boatloads of armed men who were less pirates than halcones - lookouts for drug runners. The cartel ground soldiers, as he called them, were young and poorly trained, and the Hartleys ran afoul of them.
The federal official, who spoke on background, said there have been two other incidents in the past six months in which two Americans were murdered in the same Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They tried to run highway roadblocks manned by drug mafia gunmen. One man was traveling with his family; the other was a mountain biker. The senior official said: think of this as a sort of water roadblock. A puzzled U.S. Homeland Security official added: This is a weird case; the cartels know that killing Americans is bad for business.
In a chilling development last week, a Mexican state investigator assigned to the case, Rolando Flores, was killed and decapitated, his head delivered in a suitcase to a nearby army garrison. Captain Aaron Sanchez works with the sheriff's department in Zapata County, Texas, which is the lead agency in the case.
Captain AARON SANCHEZ (Mexican Officer): We were told that the search was cancelled not too much after the death of the law enforcement officer there in Mexico.
BURNETT: This is the investigator who was decapitated?
Mr. SANCHEZ: Yes.
BURNETT: Was there a message intended in that?
Mr. SANCHEZ: I think the message was: This is our territory, stay out.
BURNETT: The Hartley case has caught the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called the investigator's murder absolute barbarity. A spokesman for the Tamaulipas state attorney general's office said in a telephone interview they can't be sure the investigator's murder is connected to the Hartley case.
Nevertheless, after the investigator's murder, the search for Hartley's body and the Hartley homicide investigation were suspended indefinitely. On Monday, Tiffany Hartley urged Mexican authorities to keep looking for the body, before she left Texas for her home in Colorado.
The U.S. official said Mexican investigators are looking for a new security strategy before they resume their probe. The Mexican federal attorney general's office is now the lead agency in the Hartley case.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
BURNETT: The huge Falcon Lake was created 58 years ago by damming up a section of the Rio Grande between Laredo and Brownsville. It's become one of the most popular bass fishing lakes in the country, and visitors often motor over to the Mexican side to photograph an old partially-submerged church. That's the inlet where David Hartley, a 30-year-old oilfield service worker, was reportedly killed. And it's the same place where, in April, two separate groups of American anglers were menaced and robbed at gunpoint by Mexican men in boats.
The Web site of the U.S. consul general in Matamoros warns Americans to exercise extreme caution while on Falcon Lake, which is - these days - heavily patrolled by Border Patrol boats.
Local Chamber of Commerce president Paco Mendoza, in the nearby town of Zapata, seconds that advice.
Mr. PACO MENDOZA (Local Chamber of Commerce President): Zapata is safe, Falcon Lake is safe, as long as you stay on the American side of the lake.
BURNETT: On a recent afternoon, fishing guide Charlie Harralson stowed his gear on his tricked-out bass boat after a day fishing on the lake.
Mr. CHARLIE HARRALSON (Fishing Guide): I don't pretend to know what happened and we'll probably never know for sure what happened. You know, all I know for sure is that it's really hurt my business and this town.
BURNETT: The warnings to stay in Texas waters didn't seem to faze him.
Mr. HARRALSON: We were in Mexico all day today, and it's just as peaceful as it is fishing right off that dock.
BURNETT: Five minutes later, Justin King backed his flat-bottom johnboat into the water to try and hook a big bass at the end of the day. Will he cast his lure in Mexican waters?
Mr. JUSTIN KING (Fisherman): Oh, heck no. Nah. Negative, man. Stay away - stay away from there, yeah.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Zapata, Texas.