The Brownsville Herald
A leading Mexican newspaper is reporting that suspects in the fatal attack on ICE Special Agent Jaime J. Zapata have changed their story and now claim that Zapata and his partner provoked the encounter.
The new account drew strong reaction from U.S. officials.
“I’ll take the word of our federal agents over a terrorist any day,” U.S. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, of Austin, said.
Zapata and fellow agent Victor Avila were attacked Feb. 15 when traveling on official business in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. Zapata died at the scene, and Avila was injured.
Julian “El Piolín” Zapata Espinoza, one of those detained as a suspect in the case, now says that the U.S. agents fired first, Reforma said, citing case files in the investigation.
In February, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office said that Zapata Espinoza claimed that confusion led to the attack because his Zetas group believed that the agents’ SUV belonged to a rival drug cartel.
McCaul rejected the new account.
“The fact is Agents Zapata and Avila were ambushed,” he said. “They clearly identified themselves as U.S. diplomats and the cartel responded with over 80 rounds from AK-47s.”
Phil Jordan, a former supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, said, “There is no way that the agents would have provoked the attack.”
“Anybody that believes this is either smoking something other than cigarettes or chewing peyote,” Jordan said.
Reforma reported Thursday the new account that Zapata and Avila provoked the attack after they accidentally hit a pickup in a convoy of three vehicles carrying a squad of hit men armed with AK-47s.
According to Reforma, the hit man, or “sicarios,” say they stopped and got out of their vehicles after the accidental collision. When the ICE agents saw the men were armed, the agents fired at the hitmen who then fired back, riddling the SUV the ICE agents were riding in with 20 bullets, according to the account.
Officials in Mexico and the United States have said the two agents were not armed.
According to Reforma, the investigation has revealed that besides Zapata Espinoza, suspects include Ruben Dario Vanegas, alias “El Catracho,” from Honduras, and Armando Francisco Gonzalez, alias “El Ojitos,” who reportedly was carrying a U.S. police credential or identification card.
According to Reforma, the case file says that two bullets hit the front windshield of the SUV, nine bullets struck the back part of the SUV and seven hit Zapata. Information is that the Zetas handed Zapata Espinoza and members of his cell over to the government, because Zeta bosses concluded that Zapata’s death had unnecessarily brought heat to the area under their control.
A member of the Zetas reportedly told authorities that the bosses ordered that Zapata Espinoza be reunited with his cell and that they would either be killed or handed over to the authorities.
Reforma reported that Sergio Mora, alias “El Toto,” a boss in San Luis Potosí who allegedly coordinated the hit men, testified that the attack had nothing to do with Zapata Espinoza wanting the SUV or because he thought the agents were members of a rival cartel.
Mora reportedly said that Zapata Espinoza claimed that the SUV had followed him and had struck his pickup and that the U.S. agents had fired at them when they got out of their pickup.
According to the Reforma report, Jose Sarabia Castro (or Luis Jesus Sarabia; the name has been given both ways), known as “El Comandante Pepito,” was above Mora, and Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar “El Mamito” was above Sarabia. Until February, Rejon Aguilar reportedly had been the Zetas boss in the state of San Luis Potosí, Reforma said.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, reacted swiftly to the new allegations: “Special Agents Victor Avila Jr. and Jaime Zapata were brutally attacked while working as a part of ICE’s attaché office in Mexico City. Zapata died in the line of duty as a result of the unprovoked attack.
“It is obscene for the assailants to claim that their assault on American law enforcement officers was in self-defense. I will work to aggressively pursue this case on behalf of the Avila and Zapata families,” Farenthold said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said of the new account: “You’ve got to look at the source.”
“I will stick with the Department of Homeland Security investigators that have very carefully looked at the circumstance of the murder of the ICE agent, and I stand by the work that they’re doing and the work they have done,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said the United States would continue working with Mexico to bring the guilty parties to justice. The U.S. has already begun the paperwork for the extradition of Zapata Espinoza.