On the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2011, Garcia Sota and Quezada Piña were among a group of cartel members who targeted an armored Chevrolet Suburban bearing diplomatic plates and driven by the Special Agents on a busy highway south of San Luis Potosi.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Agent Jaime Zapata and ICE Special Agent Victor Avila were on official business, heading southbound to Mexico City, when the attack took place.
During the ambush, the cartel members fired at and into the agents’ vehicle with handguns and semiautomatic assault weapons, including AK-47 and AR-15 type assault rifles.
Special Agent Zapata, 32, was fatally shot, and Special Agent Avila then 38, was wounded.
Investigators later found approximately 90 shell casings at the scene, according to the trial evidence.
(WARNING: Graphic Content. ‘Agent Down: Murder On Highway 57.’ In February 2011, assassins from one of Mexico’s deadliest drug cartels ambushed two US federal agents on a covert mission. Special agent Jaime Zapata was killed. His partner Victor Avila was wounded. But Victor says his attempts to find out the truth have cost him his job – and exposed a cover-up. Courtesy of SkyNews and YouTube)
A federal jury found two Mexican nationals guilty Thursday of murder of a federal officer, attempted murder of a federal officer, and related offenses in the killing of U.S. ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE Special Agent Victor Avila on Feb. 15, 2011, in Mexico.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia, Acting Director Andrew McCabe of the FBI and Acting Director Thomas D. Homan of ICE made the announcement.
The defendants, Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, aka Juan Manuel Maldonado Amezcua, aka Zafado, 36, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and Jesus Ivan Quezada Piña, aka Loco, 29, of Matamoros, Mexico, are among seven Mexican nationals extradited to the U.S. on federal charges in this case.
“Drug cartels bring death and destruction across our Southern border and sell drugs that take lives all across America,” said Attorney General Sessions.
“The work our ICE officers do every day to keep these criminals out of our country and secure our border is heroic and makes all of us safer.”
“Today’s conviction of two cartel members in the horrific murder of ICE agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico is the next step in the Department of Justice’s ongoing efforts to dismantle the cartels and bring them to justice.”
“Today’s guilty verdicts for those responsible for the murder of ICE Special Agent Jamie Zapata and attempted murder of Special Agent Victor Avila are an important step forward for law enforcement as we continue on the path for justice,” said Acting Director McCabe.
“As I’ve said before, an attack against a federal agent serving his or her country remains a top priority for the FBI, and today’s verdict demonstrates that we will not rest until those responsible for this heinous attack and the loss of a colleague have been brought to justice.”
“I applaud today’s verdict and hope that it provides some measure of solace to the victims and their families,” said Acting Director Homan.
“Six years after these defendants ambushed and murdered Special Agent Jaime Zapata and seriously wounded Special Agent Victor Avila in Mexico, ICE remains committed to ensuring all those responsible for this cowardly and brutal attack are brought to justice.
“To that end, we are deeply grateful to the Government of Mexico, the Department of Justice, and all our partners involved in the pursuit and prosecution of these criminals.”
“This serves as a reminder that we will not relent in our mission to ensure the safety and security of Americans, and we are unwavering in our resolve to locate and apprehend those who target the brave men and women of law enforcement, wherever they are.”
“We continue to honor the memory of Special Agent Zapata with our steadfast commitment to eradicate the transnational criminal organizations that threaten the safety and security of our nation.”
Garcia Sota and Quezada Piña were found guilty of four federal offenses:
- Murder of an officer or employee of the United States
- Attempted murder of an officer or employee of the United States
- Attempted murder of an internationally protected person, and
- Using, carrying and brandishing and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence causing death.
The verdicts followed a trial that began July 10, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, during which the government presented testimony from 22 witnesses, including Special Agent Avila.
The Honorable Senior Judge Royce C. Lamberth scheduled a status hearing for August 29. A sentencing date has not yet been set.
The defendants both face mandatory life sentences for the murder conviction.
According to the government’s evidence at trial, Garcia Sota and Quezada Piña were members of two Los Zetas hit squads, or “estacas,” and were on a mission on the day of the shootings to steal vehicles for use in the cartel’s operations.
Five other defendants, all Mexican nationals, previously pleaded guilty to federal charges in this case.
- Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, aka Catracho, 29
- Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, aka Cacho, 35
- Julian Zapata Espinoza, aka Piolin, 36, and
- Alfredo Gaston Mendoza Hernandez, aka Camaron, 34, pleaded guilty to
- Federal murder and attempted murder charges between August 2011 and October 2016.
- The fifth defendant, Francisco Carbajal Flores, aka Dalmata, 42, pleaded guilty in January 2012 to
- Conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, and
- Being an accessory after the fact to the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents.
All five defendants are awaiting sentencing.
This case was investigated by the FBI, with substantial assistance from ICE, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The Government of Mexico provided substantial assistance throughout the investigative and prosecution phases of the case.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael C. DiLorenzo and Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez of the National Security Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and Trial Attorneys David Karpel and Karen Seifert of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section and Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.
Former Assistant Deputy Chief Andrea Goldbarg of the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Ballantine of the U.S. Attorney’s Office also served as members of the prosecution team at earlier stages of the litigation.
The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs has provided substantial assistance.
Assistance also was provided by Victim/Witness Advocate Yvonne Bryant, Paralegal Specialist Mac Caille Petursson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Paralegal Specialist Alejandra Arias of the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.