Published March 29, 2012
The family of a murdered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent is demanding to know if U.S. agencies could have seized the weapons used to kill him before they crossed the border into Mexico.
Amador and Mary Zapata also believe their son Jaime, who was only in Mexico for 9 days before his death, was not adequately trained for his assignment, a trip on one of Mexico’s most dangerous roads in a $160,000 armored Suburban.
“We want to find out the truth,” Amador Zapata said from the living room of his Brownsville, Texas home. “Who thought of this program? How come they let those weapons go – when they knew who had bought them? How come they let them go through the border – without trying to stop them? That’s what we want to know.”
The Zapatas had four sons employed by ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Jaime, the second oldest, was gunned down while driving from Mexico City to Monterrey last February by assassins for the Zeta cartel. The guns used to kill him were purchased in Texas.
“I don’t know anything now that I didn’t know the first day,” said Mary Zapata, surrounded by photos and memorabilia associated with her son’s life. “I expected them (ICE supervisors) to sit with us and give us a report. This is what we have so far. We do not know.”
The Zapatas hired former Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Martinez and Ray Thomas, a south Texas litigator, to find out the facts.
“The family would like answers. The family would like closure,” said Martinez. “We don’t know if this is a gun walking operation but there is circumstantial evidence that there was.”
Martinez is referring to two guns found February 15, 2011 at the murder scene in Mexico.
One was purchased in August 2010 near Houston on behalf of accused drug dealer Manuel Gomez Barba. The other in October 2010 by a Dallas trafficking ring that included Otilio Osorio, his brother Ranferi and their neighbor Kelvin Morrison.
According to the indictment, Barba began sourcing weapons through straw buyers in June 2010. He took custody of some 70 weapons through February 2011, readily informing the buyers their guns were being bought on behalf of the Zeta cartel.
Barba, who erased gun serial numbers on his kitchen table, took delivery of the weapon used to kill Zapata on August 20. In October, the ATF recorded a phone call in which Barba talked about smuggling and obliterating serial numbers of his guns. Using that evidence, ATF obtained a search warrant and arrested him four months later, the day before Zapata was killed.
Barba however was already an accused felon in a 2006 drug case and was arrested again June 18, 2010 by the DEA for dealing methamphetamine. Initially detained without bond, agents released him in July after he agreed to become a snitch. Barba set up a drug buy which allowed the DEA to arrest two others. In October, he pled guilty but remained free awaiting sentencing. During that time, he was allegedly running guns and under ATF investigation. As an accused felon, Barba was prohibited from possessing a firearm. The ATF executed its search warrant of Barba on October 8.
Martinez believes the agency may have acted sooner. The ATF says no.
“What the family needs to know is the weapons that Barba was having straw purchased for him were all purchased in May, June and August before we even knew who Barba was,” said Gary Orchowski, ATF Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Field Division.
The second gun used against Zapata was smuggled by a ring responsible for 207 weapons. From June 2010 through February 2011 the Osorio brothers and six other men began to acquire firearms from Dallas area gun stores.
According to ATF management logs, agents first observed a member of the ring buy four AK-47 style weapons from a dealer on July 29 but did not maintain surveillance. The next day, Morrison bought another weapon that later showed up in August along with 21 other guns on their way over the border, including two bought by Ranferi Osorio.
Documents show that in September 2010, the ATF in Dallas traced more crime weapons back to the ring. In November, Morrison and the Osorio brothers illegally provided 40 firearms to an ATF informant, and in January, one of the group told a gun dealer he wanted to buy a large purchase of assault rifles. Morrison himself bought 24 guns, each time swearing on a federal affidavit the guns were all for himself.
Martinez claims the ATF could and should have intervened earlier, potentially preventing the sale or export of the gun that killed Zapata.
The Dallas ATF chief Robert Champion denies his office ‘walked guns’ or knowingly allowed guns to go south as in Operation Fast and Furious. However he did admit to the Dallas Morning News in March that his agents could have arrested the Morrison and the Osorio brothers three months earlier that he did – when they delivered the 40 guns to the informant without serial numbers.
“I know people will criticize us for not taking these guys down immediately,” Champion told the paper. “But we weren’t sure what they were up to.”
Also he said, the ATF was doing what the DEA had requested.
“This wasn’t our case at this point,” Champion said. “We were protecting an investigation that DEA had in Laredo with ATF down there.”
The Zapatas say the agency’s priorities are misplaced.
“Weapons do not have an expiration,” said Mary. “It isn’t like they’re good for a week and they’re done. They’ll be there for generations to keep on killing.”
So far, Martinez has filed a Freedom of Information request for documents on the case. It was denied, as was his appeal.
He is also trying to find out why Zapata was driving the armored SUV on Highway 57, a notorious road linking Monterrey and Mexico City after only nine days in the country. He doesn’t believe Zapata had received the proper evade and escape drivers training or was informed the vehicle’s door locks automatically opened the moment the car was placed in park.
Returning from Monterrey, Zapata and his partner Victor Avila were sandwiched by two SUVs and forced off the road by attackers from the Zeta cartel. Placed in park, the door locks opened allowing gunmen to hit Zapata 6 times and Avila twice. Once the ICE agents secured their vehicle, the gunman fired 90 rounds but none penetrated the car.
“We understand there is a written directive for agents not to be on that road because it is dangerous,” said Martinez.