On Monday, two Mexicans were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of federal agents serving in Mexico. Special Agent Jaime Zapata was killed, while Special Agent Victor Avila was wounded in an attack by members of a Mexican cartel in 2011. Both Zapata and Avila were employed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI). 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 who were extradited to the United States on federal charges in this case.  They were found guilty by a jury on July 27, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and sentenced by Judge Royce C. Lamberth.
 
“HSI Special Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were in Mexico to protect and serve our country when they were ambushed by these ruthless criminals, who will now spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco.  “This case serves as a reminder, that if you harm a U.S. agent, the U.S. government will pursue you to the ends of the earth to ensure that you are brought to justice.”
 
Federal Special Agent Jaime Zapata

“Special Agents Zapata and Avila dedicated themselves to federal law enforcement,” said U.S. Attorney  Jessie K. Liu.  “While working on behalf of our country, they were ruthlessly gunned down in a carjacking attempt by members of hit squads for the Los Zetas drug cartel.  We have never forgotten what happened to these two American heroes in that ambush on a Mexican highway more than six years ago.  The sentencings this week reflect our determination to protect U.S. officials abroad and bring to justice those who do them harm.”
 
“This week’s sentencings for those responsible for the murder of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of Special Agent Victor Avila are the closure and justice we have been working toward since we began our investigation” said Assistant FBI Director Stephen E. Richardson. “Any attack against a federal agent serving his or her country is deeply personal for us and investigating those attacks remain a top priority for the FBI. I want to thank all of our law enforcement partners and our colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for their tireless work to bring this case to a successful conclusion and secure these sentences.”
 
“The sentences handed down today should serve as a powerful message to drug cartels and other transnational criminal organizations that there is no escape from justice, and that we will not rest until they have been held accountable for their crimes to the fullest extent of the law,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan.  “We remain grateful to the government of Mexico, the Department of Justice, and all our partners involved in sending these murderers to prison.  The men and women of ICE will not forget the example of bravery and sacrifice set by Special Agent Zapata as we work to eradicate these criminal networks across the globe.”
 
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.
 
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.  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.  Special Agent Zapata and Special Agent 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.
 
Five other defendants previously pleaded guilty to federal charges in this case and are to be sentenced tomorrow.  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 to being an accessory after the fact to the murder and attempted murder of the ICE HSI agents.  All of the defendants are Mexican nationals, with the exception of Venegas Rivera, who is from Honduras.
 
This case was investigated by the FBI, with substantial assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service; and U.S. Marshals Service.  The Government of Mexico provided substantial assistance throughout the investigative and prosecution phases of the case. 
 
The family of federal agent Zapata has joined his colleague, Special Agent Victor Avila, in suing federal government officials involved in the Obama administration’s "Operation Fast and Furious," which allowed weapons purchased in the U.S. to be sold to Mexican cartels. That lawsuit alleges that the area where Avila and Zapata were sent on was "known to be patrolled and controlled by a dangerous criminal organization." Two of the weapons used to kill Zapata were trafficked by suspects the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was surveilling but did not arrest. Avila told SkyNews in 2016, "Now we know that they knew,” adding. "No one has been held accountable for the death of Jaime and my injuries." Zapata is also suing HSBC -- a multinational bank headquartered in the UK -- for allegedly allowing Mexican drug cartels to launder billions of dollars. 
 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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