On February 15, Mexican gunmen boldly attacked and killed a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and wounded a second, Victor Avila. This latest attack was the highest-profile assault against U.S. law enforcement officials in Mexico in decades. It was not, however, the first time Mexican criminals struck at American officials.

Last March, members of the Barrio Azteca gang in Ciudad Juarez murdered U.S. consulate employee Lesley A. Enriquez and her husband Arthur H. Redelfs on the streets of the Mexican border town.

The full force of U.S. law enforcement will swing into action to work with Mexico to find Zapata’s killers, presumably members of the Zeta organization. Surely, the death of an American official on Mexican soil raises the stakes in the ongoing U.S.–Mexican battle against Mexico’s cartels and criminal organizations. Sadly, Agent Zapata’s death will likely not be the last.

If the surge in drug-related violence in the first two months of the year is any indication, 2011 has the potential to overtake 2010 as Mexico’s deadliest. Last year claimed a reported 15,273. Violence between Mexican law enforcement and criminal organizations resulted in 30 deaths in Monterrey alone this month. Among the victims was a senior Mexican official engaged in the coordination of counter-narcotics efforts in an effort to regain control and security in Mexico’s most important industrial city.

The reports from border areas close to the U.S. are sobering reminders of the mantle of brutality and terror that lawless criminals cast over parts of Mexico. Once famous Acapulco has become a grim focal point for drug crime. Admittedly, the overall picture for Mexico is less gloomy, and parts of the country are far more secure. Some successes have been recorded in areas such as Tijuana.

The now-expired $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative has until now been the anchor of U.S.–Mexican counter-drug cooperation. It is still delivering assistance that has been slowed by red tape. Many fear that it is not producing results. Before the Houses Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela reassured House Members that the U.S.–Mexican game plan is working. “Although the road ahead remains challenging, we are certain that this is the right approach that will lay the groundwork for long-term sustainable results.”

Yet there is fresh concern that help for Mexico will fall victim to the budgetary ax as the Obama Administration moves to cut key security and anti-drug assistance in order to protect domestic pork. The President’s fiscal year 2012 Drug Control Budget reduces the amount of international drug control aid by 17.6 percent, or $456.6 million, from the 2010 level. Assistance to Mexico will fall more than $100 million to $355 million.

Next month President Obama will make his first South American trip to warm spots in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. He will emphasize what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called an “opportunity agenda.” Yet many will worry that while the President travels, the fire most in need of his attention burns out of control very close to home.