ICE Agent’s Murder In Mexico Could Become a Cold Case

Investigation Already Marked by Drug War Duplicity

In the aftermath of the attack earlier this week on two U.S. federal agents in Mexico, the U.S. media has gone on a feeding frenzy reporting on the sensationalistic details of the assault while the subsequent investigation into that crime may already be unraveling absent scrutiny.

The two ICE agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila, were attacked by a group of armed men this past Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 15, while traveling in a government vehicle on Mexican Highway 57 near Santa Maria del Rio, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi — located about midway between Monterrey to the north and Mexico City to the south.

Narco News filed its initial report on the assault on the ICE agents within about five hours of the event and published an update advancing the story less than 10 hours after the attack.

Although the details of the attack vary, even at this point, depending on which news outlet you read, Narco News’ early reporting on the crime, by any reasonable measure, has stood the test of time — and the barrage of mainstream media reports that have been published since.

That even includes Narco News’ revelation, since re-reported by the Associated Press, that the two ICE agents left Mexico City in an armored SUV with diplomatic plates the day of the attack to deliver some unknown equipment to another team of ICE agents from Monterrey — who had arranged to meet Zapata and Avila at a midway point between the two Mexican cities.

A source familiar with the attack has since told Narco News that the cargo being transported by the ICE agents was communications equipment, nothing worth killing over — but possibly just sensitive enough so that it could not be transported via commercial airline. That same source also revealed some important new details about the assault on the agents.

After the initial confrontation with the attackers on the side of the freeway, which left both ICE agents wounded, the driver, agent Zapata,  [Narco News incorrectly put Avila in the driver seat in its initial report] managed to get the SUV back on the freeway — speeding away from the armed caravan of men, who gave chase yet again. During the course of all this, and despite being wounded, the agents had the presence of mind to get several phone calls out for assistance.

Zapata, though, was mortally wounded, and as he was dying, the SUV rolled to a stop along a stretch of median. Agent Avila was unable to move Zapata’s body and was trapped in the SUV. The armed men by now were again outside the vehicle, spraying the passenger’s side of the SUV with bullets, but the armor held, according to the source.

The attackers suddenly departed, leaving Avila alone in the SUV, bleeding. A short time later, the source contends, a Mexican cop arrived at the scene and knocked on the window of the SUV, but Avila did not trust the situation, and refused to open the door. The Mexican police officer departed, the source claims, and shortly after an ambulance arrived, presumably called by the cop, but again, Avila refused to get out of the SUV.

Finally, after the ambulance had departed (and after what seems to be an inordinately long time since the initial calls for help) the cavalry arrived — a phalanx of Mexican soldiers and law enforcers. According to the source, at that point, Avila opened the door to the SUV. He was subsequently informed, the source claims, that both the Mexican cop and the ambulance that had stopped at the scene previously likely were ruses designed by his attackers to get him to unlock the door to the SUV so they could finish their job. 

Leads from the Other Side

Narco News’ original reports indicated that law enforcement sources suspected that a paramilitary narco-trafficking organization known as the Zetas were responsible for the attack. Subsequent media reports have echoed that suspicion and most recently the Brownsville Herald in South Texas reported that an alliance of narco-trafficking groups “issued a statement” alleging that members of the Zetas were, in fact, responsible for the attack on the ICE agents.

From the story in the Brownsville Herald:

According to the communiqué, which was released to The Brownsville Herald shortly after the death of Zapata, the Gulf Cartel and its allies separate themselves from a number of crimes stating that the “Mexican federal government is aware that several cowardly acts have been carried out by the criminal group the Zetas who try to confuse public opinion through messages denying any involvement.”

… The communiqué states that the attack against the ICE agents in San Luis Potosí was carried out by a group of Zetas under orders of Zeta lieutenant Jesus Enrique “El Mamito” Rejón Aguilar, who targeted Americans.

All of this news, literally thousands of reports over the past several days, has not been lost on certain members of Congress, who, even before Zapata’s body is in the ground, have used his murder as an opportunity to grandstand and ring the bell of jingoism in an effort to ramp up the militarization of the drug war — which advances the pecuniary interests of those companies paying the lobbyists’ bills.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. McCaul [a Republican Congresman from Texas] also urged [in the wake of the attack on the ICE agents] the U.S. to quickly disburse the aid it has committed to help Mexico combat drug cartels. Under the Merida Initiative, the U.S. provides Mexico about $400 million a year for equipment and training to combat the drug cartels. But Mr. McCaul said much of the aid hasn't been released. "That's unacceptable," he said.

And in yet another orchestrated media moment in the wake of the attack on the ICE agents that seems designed to send a signal of decisive action to the citizenry, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder announced they are establishing a joint task forced that “will leverage the investigative capabilities of both agencies to work with Mexico in tracking down the perpetrators and swiftly bring them to justice.”

The problem with that task force, according to several law enforcers who spoke with Narco News, is that it will be “led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

“It was ICE agents who were attacked and killed,” explains a former DEA agent who has years of experience working in Latin America. “There’s no problem with a joint task force, but by putting the FBI in charge, they are screwing with morale [and likely fueling agency turf issues]. What do they think, that ICE doesn’t have people capable of leading the task force?”

But that blunder in the task force’s leadership structure might well be moot, given there is now a big question mark surrounding the chain of evidence in the case that could make it quite difficult to carry out a successful U.S. prosecution of those behind the attack on the ICE agents.

The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week that an autopsy was performed in Mexico on the body of ICE agent Zapata before it was flown to Houston.

From the Houston Chronicle report:

… After Zapata's remains were en route [to Houston], federal officials learned that Harris County officials refused to do the second autopsy, and the body was transferred to another plane and flown to the Department of Defense Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the source said.

A spokesman for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Roxanne Mena, said the agency gave advance notice to the FBI, which was coordinating the efforts, that state law prohibits it from doing an autopsy on a person whose body was recovered outside the United States.  

The former DEA agent, who is quite familiar with chain-of-evidence issues in criminal investigations, says there also appears to be another problem with the autopsy being performed in Mexico.

“The reason the Houston people probably didn’t want to do another autopsy is they are likely afraid the first one was already screwed up in Mexico, and they didn’t want to complicate matters [by doing yet another autopsy],” the DEA source said. “There’s probably some rounds [bullets] missing [from the body], or at least there’s likely no way of knowing [which creates a big chain-of-evidence hurdle for prosecutors in any U.S. criminal case].”

An important point to note is that the Zetas were founded by former military special-forces members, including soldiers from an elite Mexican unit, and they continue to recruit members of the Mexican military, as well as law enforcement, into their ranks. As a result, if any of the bullets used in the attack were to trace back to Mexican soldiers or law enforcers, the political blowback — not to mention conspiracy concerns — from such a link would create shock waves for political leadership on both sides of the border.

One ICE source told Narco News that U.S. government officials had asked Mexican officials for the courtesy of allowing the autopsy to be performed in the U.S. and were quite angry when they discovered that request was simply ignored.

From the point of view of the Mexican government, however, according to the former DEA agent who spoke with Narco News, since the attack on the ICE agents occurred in Mexico, it is their crime to investigate, “and they can say they are quite happy with the chain of evidence in the case.”

The ICE source also questioned whether similar chain-of-evidence problems might exist with the scene of the attack as well.

“The crime scene is very important,” the ICE source says. “Did they [Mexican law enforcers] collect the evidence properly…?”

Given that the ICE agent who was killed, Zapata, presumably had diplomatic status in Mexico, then the U.S. government should have had some say on where the autopsy was performed, adds the former DEA agent

“It sounds like the State Department might not have done its job in demanding that the body be turned over to the U.S.,” the former DEA agent says.

And so, we can see already signs of a breakdown in the investigation into the murder of ICE agent Zapata, due to a failure of U.S. officials to keep their eye on the ball due to turf wars, political grandstanding and bureaucratic incompetence.

The keystone cop routine now seemingly playing out on both sides of the border in the aftermath of the ICE agent’s murder could well be a byproduct of the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the drug war, according to another former DEA agent with years of experience doing undercover work, including in Latin America:

Mexico is through the looking glass, and the powers that be on this side of that glass, for very apparent reasons (alas. not apparent to mainstream media) do not want anything to happen that would damage that country's financial stability. 

That means cover-up the truth about the depth and extent of the corruption, and above all, do not damage the Mexican drug economy....

If that analysis is correct, it seems rival narco-trafficking organizations may actually do more to solve this murder case than the U.S. or Mexican governments.

Or as the ICE source put it, in referencing the letter sent to the Brownsville Herald from the narco-trafficking groups:

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Stay tuned….

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