One Year Later, The Murder of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata Goes Unsolved


Cindy Casares Portrait

A version of this story ran in the March 2012 issue.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the mysterious murder of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata, a Brownsville native, who was gunned down on a stretch of highway in central Mexico on February 15, 2011. He was allegedly killed by members of Los Zetas drug cartel in a case of mistaken identity. The federal government has yet to make public key details about the case, like why Zapata and his partner Victor Avila of El Paso were sent alone down a notorious stretch of highway known for gang activity when they could have flown or traveled with an armed escort of Mexican military or police. (Avila was shot, but not killed in the ensuing ambush.) Because grand jury testimony in the case against suspected Zeta member Julian Zapata Espinoza was “accidentally taped over” by a court reporter, we may never know the truth.

At a hearing before the House’s Homeland Security Committee this week, Rep. Michael McCaul, (R-Austin), grilled Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano over rumors that Jaime Zapata may have been killed with weapons that entered Mexico through the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ botched gun- walking Operation Fast & Furious. The unauthorized operation was responsible for hundreds of guns making their way across the border into Mexico with at least one weapon being found at the murder scene of slain U.S. Border Patrolman Brian Terry in Arizona.

“Madame Secretary, there’s been some speculation that the weapons used to kill Agent Zapata may have been linked to the Operation Fast & Furious. Do you have any information that would indicate there’s a connection there?” McCaul asked.

“I have no information to that effect, no. I don’t know one way or the other,” Napolitano said before eventually becoming annoyed that what was supposed to be a hearing on President Obama’s 2013 proposed budget for the Department of Homeland Security had been hijacked by McCaul to find out more about Fast & Furious and its possible connection to Zapata’s death.

Napolitano placed the responsibility for any and all information regarding the Fast & Furious case squarely on the ATF, later telling U.S Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) that she has not even spoken to Attorney General Eric Holder about it despite the fact that it’s been designated an interagency case. She is also unaware, she says, to what extent her ICE agents were informed of Operation Fast & Furious or to what extent they’ve participated in the ensuing investigation.

Meanwhile, at a church in Brownsville, Texas, Mary Zapata-Muñoz and her husband, Amador Zapata Jr., were no closer to an answer about why their 32-year-old son was killed.

“If we had known the situation, we wouldn’t have let him go,” Amador Zapata said in an interview with The Brownsville Herald. As the Zapatas crossed themselves at a mass to mark the anniversary of their son’s death, ICE Director John Morton and more than 30 uniformed officers from the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol along with top officials from all levels of government sat in the pews.

“I have nightmares of his last moments, what it must have been like. Being in a foreign country, not to hurt anybody. He must have thought ‘what’s going on?’ ‘What are these people doing?’ How did they take his life? Can you imagine what it must have been like? What he must have gone through?” Zapata-Muñoz said.

Zapata’s mother, who has spoken before of her fears that a cover up could be underway, repeated her resolve this week to ensure that everyone responsible for her son’s death is brought to justice. Then she recited an adage about how the person giving the order is as responsible as the one executing it.

It remains to be seen, however, if the person who gave these orders will pay.