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Family of Slain ICE Agent Zapata Files Claim Against U.S. Government

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On June 20th, the same day a House panel voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over failure to turn over documents concerning the Operation Fast & Furious gun-walking scandal, the parents of slain ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and injured Special Agent Victor Avila filed notice that they would seek $62.5 million in claims from the U.S. government.  The notice came as President Obama asserted executive privilege involving the Arizona-based gun-walking program. 

Attorneys for Zapata’s family and Avila allege negligence and failure on the part of the government and several federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regarding the attack against the two agents. Cartel members attacked Zapata and Avila on Feb. 15, 2011 in Mexico.

Gun-walking is when law enforcement agencies allow criminal suspects to “walk” off with guns, without stopping or even necessarily tracking them. In the Fast & Furious case, guns were allowed to cross the Arizona border into Mexico, ostensibly to follow the bad guys. The practice is considered highly irresponsible because the guns almost always end up being used to kill people.  A Fast & Furious gun was found at the murder scene of a U.S. border patrol agent in Arizona. The Zapata case has raised concerns about gun-walking in Texas after federal records showed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) were watching when the gun that ultimately killed Zapata was sold in a store parking lot in Lancaster, Texas. The agents allowed the gun dealers to drive away and only apprehended them two weeks after Zapata’s highly publicized death.

Zapata’s family and Avila have not been able to obtain answers to many of their questions about the attack in Mexico. Questions such as:  Why were the agents driving a suburban from Mexico City to the U.S. when they could have flown? Why were they traveling without an armed escort of Mexican military or police—as is routine—on a stretch of highway known for narco-gang activity? Why were they traveling in a custom-made, $160,000 high-security vehicle that had locks that would disengage when put in park?  Why was the grand jury testimony of an FBI special agent in the investigation into the attack “accidentally taped over” and not re-recorded?

Attorneys Trey Martinez of Brownsville and Raymond L. Thomas of McAllen allege that “wrongdoing” on the part of the ATF, ICE and the FBI led to the murder and injury of the special agents, according to the Brownsville Herald.

“The struggle to obtain this information and find transparency amidst the massive efforts to deny access to some … of the significant information seems to be the priority at hand, not just for these two families, but for other law enforcement agents, families affected by some of these decisions, as well the legislative branch of our Federal Government,” said the lawyers on June 20.

The attorneys said the claims may be amended.  

Operation Too Hot To Handle, is one of a dozen other gun-walking operations the ATF has run in recent years. According to the ATF website, Too Hot To Handle involved about 300 weapons, mostly assault rifles and automatic pistols that were seized in Arizona, Texas and Mexico.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.