SPECIAL REPORT: Ex-ICE agent recalls 2011 ambush that killed partner, continues seeking justice

Border Crime

D.C. court of appeals dismissed the murder charge

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Victor Avila, a native El Pasoan and former federal special agent, survived an ambush by cartel members but his partner did not. Ten years later he is still seeking justice.

In February 2011, Avila had met his partner Jaime Zapata the day before their assignment had taken them on Highway 57. Avila had been hired as an ICE special agent/U.S. diplomat in Mexico City. He was working out of the U.S. Embassy.

“My main concentration in Mexico was humane trafficking. I was helping dismantle organizations that traffic women and children into the United States,” said Avila.

Zapata was fairly new to Mexico City.

“I met him that afternoon,” Avila said. “But I felt I have known him my whole life. Because from the moment that I met him to the drive, up until the ambush, we were sharing so many stories, so much information that now that I look back, it’s sad.”

Their assignment was to transport equipment from Monterrey using a well-known highway.

“I challenged the assignment because there had been a lot of issues with the Zeta cartels on highway 57,” Avila said.

Avila said the U.S Embassy had issued an alert three weeks before the assignment stating no one was allowed to travel on Highway 57.

“The alerts and intelligence were ignored by my supervisors and they sent us on this assignment anyways,” he said.

On the way to Monterey, everything seemed fine but it was the trip back on Highway 57 when the chaos began. Two SUVs with armed men rammed them off the highway.

“They surrounded our suburban. In the chaos of them trying to gain access to our armored suburban, my window was cracked down a couple of inches on my right side, the armored window. They were able to introduce an AK-47 and a handgun by my head. I immediately raised the window to catch the barrels of both guns and try to get them to wiggle them out of there but without notice, they opened fire into the cabin striking special agent Jaime Zapata several times. I got shot three times, once in the chest and twice in the left leg. I saw Jamie get hit with a which was a fatal shot in his left leg,” Avila explained.

After the gunmen left, Avila would press down on Zapata’s wound and call for help. It took 40 minutes for someone to find them and help get them off Highway 57.

“My whole time there was trying to keep Jamie alive and keep his wound from bleeding. I hadn’t even realized that I had been shot myself until I was on the phone with the U.S. agents from the U.S. Embassy. One of the agents told me to check myself physically. I had a lot of shrapnel and glass on my face and I had both my blood and Jamie’s blood on me. That’s the first time I saw my wound on my chest,” Avila said.

He said those 40 minutes of waiting for help felt very lonely.

“It’s an eternity. In the law enforcement world, response time is a lot so 40 minutes is right, it’s an eternity,” said Avila. “A lot of emotions. A lot of helplessness.”

Help would arrive by helicopter. They were rushed to the closest hospital in San Luis Potosi.

“They took special agent Jamie Zapata to one trauma unit. They took me to another. Later, the doctor came over and informed me that Agent Zapata had passed,” he said.

Weeks after the ambush, the eight shooters were caught and extradited to the U.S. They were tried in 2017. The five who pleaded guilty got sentences ranging from 12 years to 35 years down.

“Which are very low. The Zapata family and I disagree with the sentences. The two that did not plead guilty and went to trial, they were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences,” Avila said.

But it doesn’t end there. Last year, the shooters appealed their sentence.

“The appeal was granted by the D.C. court of appeals and they dismissed the murder charge. So as I talk to you today, no one is accountable for the murder of agent Jaime Zapata. They are there in US prison on attempted murder charges and the gun charges only,” said Avila.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said it was dismissed because the murder happened outside of the U.S. Avila is now working to help change the law in hopes they’ll be re-sentenced to life in prison.

“There is a lot of anger. I’m working a lot with the senators, federal law enforcement association. There is a bill right now in the legislation; it’s a bi-partisan bill that changes the wording of that law,” Avila said.

In the meantime, he’s working on sharing Zapata’s story.

“I will continue to fight for justice for Jaime. I mention Jaime because I don’t want this death to be in vain. I want people to know the sacrifice he gave to defend our homeland,” said Avila.

You can find a more descriptive account of what Avila and Zapata experienced on Highway 57 in a book Avila has just published. Click here to purchase the book.

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