ICE Agent Zapata’s Assassination Explained. Ish.

In today’s Congressional ode to gun control (Outgunned), the authors end with a mention of the “other” federal law enforcement officer killed with guns enabled by our friends at the ATF. That would be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent Jaime Zapata, gunned down inside Mexico by person or persons unknown. Quite what Agent Zapata was doing south of the border is still a mystery. I have my suspicions. But before that, here’s the bit detailing Zapata’s death . . .

On February 15, 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata and his partner Victor Avila were driving from Mexico City to Monterrey when gunmen pulled alongside their vehicle.  In an attempt to reason with them, the agents opened the window to explain, “We’re Americans, we’re diplomats.”  One gunman responded in Spanish, “I don’t give a ****,” and shot through the window.  Agent Zapata was shot three times, and Agent Avila was shot twice.  By the time Mexican authorities arrived, Agent Zapata had died.

At the scene, investigators found 83 shell casings and three firearms.  Law enforcement agents traced the purchase of one firearm, a Romarm-Cugir Draco 7.62 x 39mm pistol, to Otilio Osorio, who purchased it from a gun dealer in Texas on October 10, 2010. The Draco has the same firing capacity as a full-sized AK-47, can hold a 75-round drum magazine, and is capable of penetrating protective vests. Osorio reportedly was in the business of buying weapons for Mexican drug cartels and in one case provided 40 firearms at one time. On March 23, 2011, Osorio was indicted on charges of illegal possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm bearing a removed or obliterated serial number.

While Congressman Cummins would like us to focus on the straw purchases—without wondering about the ATF’s role in those transactions—I’m still left puzzling about the motives for Zapata’s murder. More specifically, why would Zapata claim he was a diplomat?

For more information on the events surrounding his assassination, we turn to a recent report from STRATFOR, one of the only reliable sources for information on the subject of the current and future state of Mexico.

One of the most significant events involving Los Zetas since December 2010 was the Feb. 15  attack against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The motivation for the attack remains unclear, but viewed against documented Zeta operational behaviors and priorities, it clearly was not consistent with the top leadership’s doctrine and past practices. There has been much speculation regarding the attackers’ motives, but a planned and sanctioned attack against U.S. officials would be certain to bring the full weight of the U.S. government onto the perpetrators, and that is not something the top Zeta leadership would want to invite. This suggests the possibility that lower-level regional leaders either lost control of their operational cells or actually condoned and/or ordered the attack.

Regarding the possibility of neglected control, the erosion of Zeta forces through battle, targeted assassination and capture has been high over the past year. There have been numerous indications that recent Zeta recruits have tended to be younger and less experienced than those who joined prior to 2010. The attrition in leadership has also resulted in leaders who are themselves younger and less experienced. Such a mix may be creating conditions in which young men equipped with vehicles and weapons but with little discipline or oversight are left to their own devices.

A number of mid-level Zeta leaders came from military and law enforcement backgrounds and had received some level of institutional training and education. But many of them likely do not grasp the gravity — or even know about — an incident 26 years ago, when the Guadalajara cartel kidnapped, tortured and killed Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In response, the U.S. government orchestrated the annihilation of the Guadalajara cartel in a massive offensive called Operation Leyenda. It is possible that certain midlevel Zetas, lacking knowledge or appreciation of that operation, may not be aware of the potential repercussions of an attack on known U.S. government personnel.

If that is the case, there may be a few sporadic attacks on U.S. government agents in the coming months. But unless such events go unanswered by U.S. agencies, thereby lending the cartels a sense of impunity, it is doubtful that more than a handful of such attacks will occur.

To some extent, out-of-control gunmen within Los Zetas are a self-solving problem. Rash actions by low-level Zetas can and do trigger the occasional harsh “house cleaning,” in which the transgressors, on the orders of top-level leaders, are either killed or betrayed to authorities to send a message to the rest of the organization. Either way, the internal problem weakens the cartel and reduces both its numbers and its organizational efficacy, and it is unlikely that the internal punishment of wayward Zetas protects the organization as a whole from the consequences of their actions.

Reading between the lines (and considering other source material), as we’ve stated before, the chances are high that the Mexican government is in bed with the Sinaloa Cartel, allied against the rogue ex-military men at the helm of Los Zetas (amongst others).

Which would explain the lack of Mexican outrage against the ATF’s Gunwalker fiasco, which armed cartel members who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Mexican nationals in Mexico. Or the simple fact that the U.S. government was overseeing the illegal importation of weapons into Mexico.

Agent Zapata wasn’t on holiday. He was negotiating with someone about something to do with the cartels’ internecine warfare. What was Zapata doing in Mexico? What did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton know about it and Gunwalker, and when did she know it? Just askin’ . . .

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

12 Responses to ICE Agent Zapata’s Assassination Explained. Ish.

  1. avatarRob says:

    Why leave 3 weapons at the scene?

    • avatarLeo Atrox says:

      Perhaps it is standard operating procedure to dump the weapons at the scene of the crime so that you cannot be found later with weapons involved in a murder. If they do a little fingerprint management to avoid leaving prints, then there’s nothing to trace back to them. Everyone might know that you did it (and/or your employer is responsible) but it can’t be proven.

  2. avatarpoppymann says:

    I wondered that myself. I also wonder if there is involvement from the State department or other intel agencies in this. State has used narcotics as a means to fund covert operations in the past. If he said they were “diplomats” it makes the whole thing curious. This could be a Hassenfuss moment.

  3. avatarRob says:

    I guess if you don’t leave wepons they can’t be found and traced. Maybe we should thank sloppy Narco soldiers for helping the ATF figure out that cartels get their guns from the US.

  4. avatarBrad Kozak says:

    Or perhaps the weapons were left there, on purpose. As a statement. And as a way of saying “we know what you did (Gunwalker) and we’ll expose you, just because we can.”

  5. avatarCUJO THE DOG OF WAR says:

    Could it be a rival cartel, or even corrupt Mexican officials or their allies, did this to put the heat on the Zetas?

  6. avatarGerard says:

    Who says there has to be a direct relationship with ATF?

  7. avatarRob says:

    Brad- that’s actually a scenero that came up when I was talking about it with some friends this weekend. I just think it’s odd to leave perfectly goo weapons behind. How many have been left at other crime scenes?

  8. avatarstateisevil says:

    That map makes me wonder if we’ll see Mexico break up into other states. Here is an accurate description of what a state is, by St. Augustine:

    “Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band is itself made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom! This title is manifestly conferred on it, not because greed has been removed, but because impunity has been added. A fitting and true response was once given to Alexander the Great by an apprehended pirate. When asked by the king what he thought he was doing by infesting the sea, he replied with noble insolence, “What do you think you are doing by infesting the whole world? Because I do it with one puny boat, I am called a pirate; because you do it with a great fleet, you are called an emperor.”

  9. avatarTL671 says:

    Leaving weapons behind is an ages old time tested method employed by mafia, and other professional hitmen, if you leave a clean (no fingerprints) gun at the scene you can’t be found in possession of it later. Just like Leo said. Real life is not like the movies, hitmen don’t wander around carrying a $2000 pistol, or suitcase rifle that they do all of there hits with, they buy the cheapest .22, or .25 ,walk directly up to there target, put the gun against their head, pull the trigger, drop the gun, walk away.

    • avatarRob says:

      I hear what both of you are saying but it seems doubtful that these guys care that much. Mass burials, grenades, cutting people to pieces. The don’t really seem like they would care too much about ballistic traces. Maybe with this crime they did want to ditch the guns since it was US law enforcement.
      Does anyone know if they have left guns at other crime scenes?

      • avatarTL671 says:

        A while back I read an article stating that they had been instructed to leave their guns at every crime scene, I wish I had saved the article, or at least remembered who wrote it or where it was published. Probably the reason you hear about these 2 guns exclusively, is that they were found at the scene of the murder of a federal agent, and we all know law enforcement officers are worth more than your average citizen.

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