The Texas sheriff working most closely on the “lake pirates” shooting incident told TPM Thursday that reports over the weekend of suspects in the case may have been distributed by drug cartels. Reports from both sides of the border about the case have conflicted often, and Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez himself has been at the center of some of the confusion. But in an interview with TPM Thursday, he said his office had spoken with Mexican authorities, who told him they had not given information about suspects to the media.
David and Tiffany Hartley were jet skiing and taking photographs on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake two weeks ago, when they were attacked, according to Tiffany, by people in three boats. David was shot in the head, and Tiffany says she was unable to recover his body before fleeing for safety. Since then, Mexican authorities have not been able to find David’s body or the jet ski he was riding that day.
Over the weekend, media reports said that Mexican state police officials had identified two suspects in the case. But shortly after, the state attorney general’s office in Tamaulipas disputed those reports, and said it had no information of any suspects. Gonzalez suggested to TPM that the cartels were responsible.
“I understand that it was either put out by the Gulf cartel to get the Zetas in trouble,” Gonzalez told TPM in a phone interview. “Or the information was put out by the Zeta cartel to let everyone know they know who did it, and they were going to take care of it themselves.”
On Saturday, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that Gonzalez and Tamaulipas State Police Commander Juan Carlos Ballasteros had named Juan Pedro Saldivar Farias and his brother José Manuel Zaldívar Farias, both wanted for a number of other crimes, as suspects in the shooting of David Hartley. American media, including KRGV, picked up the story, citing Ballasteros.
On Sunday, Ruben Dario Rios Lopez, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office in Tamaulipas told the McAllen Monitor: “Neither the (Tamaulipas) attorney general’s office nor the personnel working in this investigation have named any suspects.”
On Monday, KRGV reported that State Police Commandant Rolando Armando Flores Villegas had provided them with further information about the brothers, and said they were suspected to be members of the Zeta drug cartel.
On Tuesday, Mexican authorities discovered Flores’ severed head.
Over the weekend, Gonzalez told media he had not heard of suspects being named. He told The Denver Post “that is weird.” Now, Gonzalez says that he thinks the reports were somehow fabricated by the cartels. He told TPM that one of his employees had spoken with Ballesteros, who denied putting out the information, and who the sheriff described as “very scared.” He suggested that someone had posed as Commander Flores to put out misinformation.
Gonzalez also told TPM that the STRATFOR report suggesting the incident may have been a case of mistaken identity sounded well-sourced, though he disagreed with some points, like Hartley being shot twice in the head. He confirmed to TPM that the truck the Hartley were driving had Mexican license plates. Those plates are what STRATFOR suggests initiated the confusion over the Hartleys’ identity that led to the shooting.
Gonzalez also told TPM that when he said last week that his office had been invited by Mexican authorities to assist in the search on the Mexican side, it was an informal offer made by a state police commander in Mexico, to try and say “if you don’t believe, us come with us.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com