Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Family of ICE agent murdered in Mexico by Los Zetas gives U.S. notice of intent to sue

$25 million claim for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress

Family members of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who was murdered in Mexico by Los Zetas gunmen today gave the United States government formal notice of their intent to file a lawsuit over his death.

The brutal attack occurred on Feb. 15, 2011. Today's notice was a legal prerequisite to the civil lawsuit, which will be filed under a law known as the Federal Tort Claims Act. The U.S. Justice Dept. had no comment.

ICE Agent Jaime Zapata was 32 at the time of his death, and had worked with the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit and the Border Enforcement Security Task Force. On the day of the attack Zapata and his partner Víctor Ávila were on official business, traveling from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. They were riding in a government vehicle carrying U.S. diplomatic tags. As they passed through the north central state of San Luis Potosí, on a major four lane highway from Monterrey to Mexico City, two vehicles began following them and forced them off the road. According to Ávila, as many as 15 men dressed in military uniforms and carrying assault weapons circled their car. Zapata rolled down his window to confirm that they were federal agents, and the men began firing at point blank range. The assailants fled immediately.

Badly wounded, Ávila managed to get off a cell phone call. Zapata attempted to drive away from the scene, but soon collapsed at the wheel. Mexican federal police arrived by helicopter in minutes, but it was too late for Zapata. He died before reaching the hospital. The attack occurred near a fake military checkpoint which the gunmen had set up.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Zapata was killed by AK-47 fire -- the weapon of choice for most drug cartels, and referred to here as cuernos de chivo, or goat horns. The guns which killed him and wounded Ávila were purchased in Dallas, authorities have said.

The civil claims
Two law firms representing Zapata's survivors allege the U.S. government was negligent in allowing the deliberate sale of assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels under secret programs like Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver (see stories below on both). A House of Representatives panel, which has been investigating the arms sales since last year, today voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over key documents on the programs. President Obama has invoked executive privilege in refusing to release the materials. Today's vote, which was along strict party lines, now moves to the full House (update below). Holder told Senate and House members in 2011 that the weapons transfers, designed to track cartel operatives via microchips planted in the firearms, were a major mistake which had led to deaths. Wide Receiver occurred during the second administration of George W. Bush. Fast and Furious occurred after Obama took office. He has said he was unaware of it.

It is unclear whether the weapon which killed Zapata was sold under either program. But in announcing plans for the civil action, the law firms said that at least 90 rounds had been fired at the two virtually defenseless agents (U.S. ICE agent died needlessly, due to faulty door lock design). Attorneys said they will sue under theories of negligence and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and today they delivered a formal demand for compensation of $25 million. Such demands, although required before suit can be filed, are routinely rejected by the government. Lawyers said they would name the Justice Dept., the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Attorney General Holder and others as defendants.

The pending criminal charges
One of the Zeta executioners was Julián Espinoza. He was arrested soon after, and was extradited to the United States in December. Los Zetas killer charged in death of U.S. immigration agent is extradited by Mexico.

Espinoza is facing multiple federal charges, which are here: Los Zetas accused killer makes his first appearance in D.C. federal court. His last court appearance was in April, and it appears unlikely that he will be tried before 2013. Accused Zeta killer of U.S. ICE agent returns to D.C. federal court for hearing; Long, slow legal road in case of Zeta hit man alleged to have killed U.S. ICE agent.

The brazen daylight attack against the two U.S. agents, on a heavily traveled highway in northern Mexico, was launched on the direct orders of Z-44, then the number three man in the Los Zetas hierarchy. Z-44, who is Luis Jesús Sarabia Ramón, was arrested by Mexican troops on Jan. 11, 2012. Top Zeta leader arrested; linked to 50 murders, including U.S. ICE agent in 2011.

The murder of Jaime Zapata while inside Mexico is one of the very few instances of a U.S. agent killed in the line of duty in this country.

June 28 - In a partisan vote, the House of Representatives today voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress: Cámara de Representantes de EU declara en desacato a Fiscal General.

Related stories
"Dear friends in the United States - please, no more assault weapons to Mexico"
Editorial: In drug war, boundaries and "national sovereignty" mean nothing

Previous reports on U.S. gun running operations
Congressman says Mexico has lost trust in U.S. after secret ATF, DEA operations
U.S. Atty. General to Congress: "Fast and Furious should never have happened"
Obama will "stand by his man," as Congress condemns Fast and Furious
U.S. Atty. General in the cross-hairs over Fast and Furious, Wide Receiver
Can guns really walk from the U.S. to Mexico?
Two U.S. officials quit over Fast and Furious scandal

Julián Espinoza, after his Feb. 23, 2011 arrest by Mexican armed forces.

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