MEXICO CITY -- Two U.S. government employees were injured Friday when their truck was fired upon by Mexican federal police in a bizarre incident whose details, as provided by Mexican authorities, are far from clear, leaving open the possibility of a tragedy sparked by a case of mistaken identity.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Friday saying the two embassy employees were attacked by "unknown assailants" and were in stable condition at a local hospital. The State Department statement did not mention the federal police, but the Mexican Naval Ministry, in a statement, said that the Americans' vehicle had indeed taken police fire.
According to the navy´s statement, the episode began at 8 a.m. near a highway linking the Mexican capital with the popular tourist destination of Cuernavaca. The Americans, accompanied by a Mexican naval official, were on a dirt road on their way to visit a military facility when they encountered a vehicle whose passengers displayed firearms. When the driver of the Americans' truck tried to evade them, the armed men opened fire.
Moments later, the statement says, three other vehicles joined the chase, also shooting at the Americans' truck.
The statement acknowledges that federal police fired on the Americans' truck, but it does not specify whether the assailants in the cars were in fact members of the federal police force. Police officials declined to comment when contacted by The Times.
Mexico's federal police force has long been plagued with disturbing incidents of corruption, despite recent efforts by outgoing President Felipe Calderon to clean it up. The most recent high-profile incident occurred in late June, when members of the force confronted a group of allegedly corrupt fellow officers in the Mexico City airport, sparking a gun battle that left three officers dead.
At the same time, federal police are being asked to fight the powerful drug cartels that have taken hold in such states as Morelos, south of Mexico City, where Friday's incident occurred.
Morelos has been particularly unstable since the 2009 slaying of drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva after a shootout with the Mexican military in Cuernavaca, the Morelian capital and a popular destination for foreign tourists and Mexico City residents. Much of the violence that has shaken Morelos is presumed to have been motivated by lower-level drug lords fighting to fill the power vacuum left by Beltran Leyva.
U.S. officials did not divulge the Americans' job description. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were "working with Mexican authorities to investigate" the incident.
Mexican newspapers reported that the Americans' truck, a Toyota SUV bearing diplomatic plates issued by the Mexican government, had been hit by at least 30 bullets.
The United States' consular mission in Mexico is the world´s largest, and the two countries have exhibited unprecedented cooperation in fighting the Mexican drug cartels in recent years. Attacks on U.S. personnel in the country are rare but not unprecedented.
In February 2011, a pair of U.S. immigration agents traveling in an SUV in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi were attacked by drug cartel members. One of the agents was injured by gunfire and the other, Jaime Zapata, was killed. A consular employee and her husband were shot and killed in the city of Juarez in 2010.
Photo: An armored U.S. Embassy vehicle is checked by Mexican military personnel after it was attacked on the highway leading to the city of Cuernavaca on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. Two U.S. government employees were shot and wounded in the attack. Credit: Alexandre Meneghini / Associated Press