Two drug cartel hit men convicted in ICE agent’s killing
WASHINGTON — A U.S. jury this week convicted two accused Los Zetas drug cartel hit men of killing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Jaime Zapata and wounding another ICE agent in a February 2011 roadside shooting in Mexico.
A jury of seven men and five women in Washington, D.C., deliberated less than five hours before finding Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, 35, known as “Safado,” and Jesus Ivan Quezada Pina, 29, known as “Loco,” guilty on four counts each including murder and attempted murder of a U.S. officer and firearms violations.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth scheduled an Aug. 29 hearing to set a sentencing date after prosecutors coordinate the attendance of the families of Zapata, 32, and Victor Avila Jr., 44, who live in Texas.
In a statement, U.S. attorney Channing Phillips said the verdicts brought to seven the number of Los Zetas cartel members convicted of the botched afternoon carjacking attempt on Feb. 15, 2011, that resulted in the death of Zapata, the first U.S. law enforcement agent killed in the line of duty in Mexico since 1985.
U.S. authorities in May 2013 announced guilty pleas by Zetas cartel commander Julian Zapata Espinoza, known as “El Piolin,” 35, for leading the attack, and other members of two alleged, four-man hit squads on related charges.
Several face the possibility of mandatory life sentences, and three testified in this month’s trial.
“The victims of this horrific assault were in Mexico on official business serving our country,” Phillips said. “The prosecution of these defendants is a testament to the enormous resources devoted to this investigation by law enforcement in the United States and Mexico.”
Reached by telephone, Avila, said “I’m glad that justice has been served for Jaime Zapata.” Avila retired from ICE in 2015 and made his first public comments on the shooting in his testimony during the 12-day trial in Washington.
“It’s still not over,” Avila said, saying he and Zapata’s family would seek life sentences for their assailants, and would continue seeking records and help from Congress about what the U.S. government knew about the attack. “Despite the guilty verdict, there are still many questions that have not been answered, specifically from” the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent department, Avila said.
Families have criticized ICE for sending the men with inadequate security, and questioned the role of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. In March, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that two of the weapons used in Zapata’s killing were trafficked by suspects whom ATF in Dallas had under surveillance but had not arrested.
Benigno Martinez, an attorney for Zapata’s parents, Mary and Amador Zapata Jr., of Brownsville, Texas, said “they were very emotional” when he told them of the verdict. “All that Mr. and Mrs. Zapata have ever wanted is justice for Jaime. I know they look forward to facing each of these defendants and having an opportunity to speak their mind before the judge at time of sentencing.”
The jury foreman, who was interviewed separately and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the cartel, said, “This was a horrific crime, perpetrated by individuals who were brutal and hateful, and the decisions that they made in their lives that brought them to this point exemplify the worst in humanity.”