Two cartel members sentenced for Zapata killing

BROWNSVILLE — Two members of the Los Zetas drug cartel have been sentenced to life in prison for the killing of ICE Special Agent Jaime J. Zapata and wounding of his partner, Victor Avila.

Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, aka Juan Manuel Maldonado Amezcua, aka “Zafado,” 36, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and Jesus Ivan Quezada Piña, aka “Loco,” 29, of Matamoros, Mexico were not only sentenced to life in prison on Monday, but received an additional 20 years in prison.

The men appeared before Senior Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District for the District of Columbia in Washington D.C. They are charged with the murder of an officer or employee of the United States; attempted murder of an officer or employee of the United States; attempted murder of an internationally protected person, and using, carrying and brandishing, and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence causing death.

Zapata, 32, a Brownsville native who worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was killed Feb. 15, 2011, near San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in an attack by members of the Zetas drug cartel. Avila was wounded in the attack.

Authorities said Zapata struggled with his assailants as they tried to drag him out of his vehicle. Zapata was shot at least three times with the bullets flying through the car window that accidentally had been cracked open. Authorities said 90 spent casings from AK-47 and AR-15 assault type weapons were found at the scene.

“HSI Special Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were in Mexico to protect and serve our country when they were ambushed by these ruthless criminals, who will now spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco, in a press release. “This case serves as a reminder, that if you harm a U.S. agent, the U.S. government will pursue you to the ends of the earth to ensure that you are brought to justice.”

Mexican authorities have reported they were told the attack on Zapata and Avila was a case of mistaken identity.

According to the government’s evidence, Garcia-Sota and Quezada-Pina were members of the Zeta hit squads or “estacas” and their mission on the day of the shooting was to steal vehicles for the use in the cartel’s operations.

“The sentences handed down today should serve as a powerful message to drug cartels and other transnational criminal organizations that there is no escape from justice, and that we will not rest until they have been held accountable for their crimes to the fullest extent of the law,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan, in a press release. “We remain grateful to the government of Mexico, the Department of Justice, and all our partners involved in sending these murderers to prison. The men and women of ICE will not forget the example of bravery and sacrifice set by Special Agent Zapata as we work to eradicate these criminal networks across the globe.”

Five defendants previously pleaded guilty to offenses based on their roles in the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents. Julian Zapata Espinoza, aka Piolin, 35, pleaded guilty on May 23, 2013, to the murder of Zapata and the attempted murder of Avila. Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, aka Catracho, 28, pleaded guilty on Aug. 1, 2011, to federal charges concerning the murder of Zapata and attempted murder of Avila. Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, aka Cacho, 33, pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2012, also to federal charges concerning the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents and Alfredo Gaston Mendoza Hernandez, 34, pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder in October 2016. Francisco Carbajal Flores, aka Dalmata, 41, pleaded guilty on Jan. 10, 2012, to conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity and to being an accessory after the fact to the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents.

As part of their guilty pleas, Espinoza, Rivera and Villagran admitted to being members of a Los Zetas hit squad and to participating directly in the Feb. 15, 2011, ambush of the two special agents. The fourth defendant, Flores, acknowledged assisting Zetas members after the attack.

The five are scheduled to be sentenced today.

ICE Special Agent Jaime J. Zapata