U.S. law enforcement authorities helped facilitate a $32,000 ransom payment in Mexico for a relative of a U.S. congressman who was kidnapped last week by gunmen in Ciudad Juarez, a border city with rampant drug smuggling, gunfights and corruption.
Erika Posselt, a Mexican national described only as "a relative of the wife" of Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and powerful chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was abducted June 19 from an auto glass store she owns in Juarez.
Held for three days, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents - at Mr. Reyes' request - helped arrange her safe return.
Saying they would kill Mrs. Posselt if a $500,000 ransom wasn't paid, the kidnappers negotiated with Mrs. Posselt's brother in Juarez and agreed to release her for $32,000 - in U.S. and Mexican currency. According to a confidential ICE memo, Mrs. Posselt was heard yelling in the background on one phone call between her brother and her captors.
The family raised the money, according to the memo. On June 21, two men on a motorcycle collected the ransom money at a Juarez street corner but sped off and eluded investigators who had staked out the drop site.
Mrs. Posselt was released several hours later, and Mexican authorities quickly transferred her to their American counterparts, who rushed her to El Paso, Texas, for "security reasons," according to the ICE memo.
No arrests have been made.
U.S. policy prohibits federal agencies from negotiating with kidnappers in ransom demands for U.S. citizens. It is not clear how the policy pertains to the involvement of U.S. agencies in the kidnapping of noncitizens such as Mr. Reyes' relative. But some law enforcement authorities on Thursday said the Mexican case could have set a dangerous precedent.
Sandalio "Sandy" Gonzalez, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration senior executive service supervisor who headed all of DEA's operations in West Texas and New Mexico, said it was natural to reach out to help a relative, but U.S. authorities lacked jurisdiction in the case.
"The question to ask is whether ICE would have gotten involved if it had been a U.S. citizen or someone not related to a member of Congress," he said. "The answer, of course, would be no."
Michael Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service senior agent, called the involvement of Mr. Reyes' office "questionable." Noting that Mr. Reyes is a retired Border Patrol sector chief, he said federal agents always have been admonished to "never use your badge to accomplish a personal goal."
Washington layer Joseph DiGenova, former U.S. attorney in the District, said cross-border law enforcement operations are generally coordinated by the U.S. Attorney General's office. He called the Reyes case a "bizarre use of U.S. law enforcement resources.
"There is absolutely no fundamental basis for U.S. law enforcement to be involved but for the request of the congressman," he said. "Not only is it highly unusual, but it raises serious questions."
Mr. DiGenova said the only reason ICE became involved is because Mr. Reyes is "the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee."
Mrs. Posselt was released three days after an aide to Mr. Reyes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso, sought help from the ICE assistant attache in Ciudad Juarez.
The agency responded by pledging the "full assistance" of its El Paso field office and coordinating a meeting with the Chihuahua state police in El Paso "to recover the kidnapped victim."
Mr. Reyes' office had no comment Thursday when asked about the matter. ICE officials also declined to comment and said the investigation is continuing.
According to the memo, ICE agents ultimately enlisted the help of Mexican state and federal law enforcement officials in Mrs. Posselt's return, but limited their role to providing their Mexican counterparts with what the memo described as "technical and logistical assistance."
One of the first officials ICE contacted "to coordinate efforts to recover Ms. Posselt" was Patricia Gonzalez, the attorney general in Chihuahua, the state where Juarez is located. That contact was followed by meetings in El Paso between ICE officials and Chihuahua state police.
The ICE memo, sent to Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said the agency's technical operations division in Washington was contacted to help coordinate support.
After her release, Mrs. Posselt was interviewed at the ICE field office in El Paso by ICE agents and Mexican prosecutors, the memo said, and "Mexican officials are pursuing leads relating to the possible location where Mrs. Posselt was held."
Juarez has been overrun by violence as powerful drug cartels battle federal and state law enforcement officials, and one another, for control of lucrative smuggling corridors into the United States. Hundreds of killings have been reported since 2006.
Over the past 15 years, more than 400 women have been killed in Juarez, their bodies dumped into ditches or vacant lots, and more than 4,000 have been reported missing. Few of the cases have been solved, and family members of the other victims don't think their killers will be brought to justice.
The memo also noted that a $56,000 ransom for a separate kidnapping was being delivered while the money was taken to the drop spot for Mrs. Posselt's release.