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Family of U.S. agent slain in Mexico demands to know gun source

The lawyer for Jaime Zapata's family says U.S. officials refuse to answer questions about whether the weapons used were linked to the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.

July 17, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, was shot to death in Mexico. Family members are demanding to know whether the weapons used were bought in the U.S. under the now-defunct Fast and Furious operation.
Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, was shot… (U.S. Immigrations and Customs…)

Reporting from Washington — Five months after U.S. immigration agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death by a Mexican drug cartel, his family is demanding to know whether the weapons were purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico under the now-defunct Fast and Furious operation.

The family complains that U.S. authorities in Washington and Texas have refused to answer crucial questions about the Feb. 15 ambush on a four-lane highway in northern Mexico.

"What happened with Jaime needs to come out," the family's lawyer, Raymond L. Thomas of McAllen, Texas, said in a telephone interview Sunday. "And the likelihood that these were Fast and Furious guns is certainly plausible."

Mexican authorities have announced nine arrests in the high-profile case. Among them was Jesus Rejon Aguilar, a Zetas cartel leader who was captured near Mexico City this month.

In Washington, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is seeking information on the Zapata slaying.

Nelson Peacock, assistant secretary for legislative affairs for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the immigration and customs agency, told Issa in a letter Friday that investigating Zapata's killing was a priority.

"Like you, the department wants to ensure that his murderers are brought to justice," Peacock wrote.

Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are leading a broader investigation into who in the Obama administration approved and monitored the anti-gun-running operation, which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in Phoenix.

Started in November 2009, the operation was intended to track U.S. weapons smuggled across the border so that law enforcement could disrupt the cartels' gun-running networks and ease the drug violence in Mexico.

Instead, nearly 200 of the firearms were found at crime scenes in Mexico. Two AK-47 assault rifles purchased during the operation were recovered after Brian A. Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol officer, was shot and killed in December in Arizona.

Zapata, a 32-year-old Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, was based in Laredo, Texas. He and fellow agent Victor Avila were on the Pan-American Highway in Mexico when they were stopped by at least eight men in two vehicles. The Americans identified themselves and the attackers opened fire, killing Zapata and wounding Avila.

In March, ATF officials in Texas told reporters that one of the weapons believed to have been used in the assault — a Romanian-made AK-47 — was bought in October at a Texas gun shop. The shop purportedly sold 40 firearms that wound up with the Zetas cartel.

On June 14, Thomas, the Zapata family lawyer, asked the FBI, the U.S. attorney's office and Homeland Security agents for FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration documents on the Zetas cartel and the slaying, and for an inspection of the bullet-riddled vehicle.

"Where did the guns come from that were used in his murder?" he wrote. "Who provided the guns?"

Federal officials said they could not discuss it, he said.

Thomas said he asked to speak with the wounded agent, Avila, but was turned down. He also wants to know whether Zapata was armed.

Thomas said Zapata's father was a Vietnam veteran awarded two Purple Hearts, and that several of the slain agent's siblings work in law enforcement.

"They are all patriots who have dedicated themselves to protecting our country," he said. "So it's very hard for them to be pushed into a position that the U.S. government is stonewalling them."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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