Two drug car­tel hit men con­victed in ICE agent’s killing

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

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