Family of ICE agent killed in attack files wrongful death claim against US government

The family of an Immigration and Customs agent slain in Mexico has filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against the U.S. government.

A pair of South Texas law firms representing the family of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata filed the claim June 14 and named ICE, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Justice Department as defendants. Attorneys for Zapata's parents, Mary and Amador Zapata, named several supervisors at the agencies and FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The claim notice is a precursor to a lawsuit.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Attorneys in the case, Raymond Thomas and Benigno Martinez, were out of the office and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Zapata was killed in a roadside attack near San Luis Potosi in northern Mexico in February 2011. Fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded.

A separate, $12.5 million claim citing negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress was filed on Avila's behalf.

According to the claims, two AK-47 assault rifles bought in Texas and smuggled into Mexico were used by the attackers to fire more than 90 rounds at the men. Lawyers for the agents said the government's practice of allowing U.S.-bought weapons to be taken into Mexico as part of broader gun trafficking investigations involving Mexican cartels allowed the weapons used in this case to be smuggled across the border.

In the filings, lawyers in the case allege that ATF officials in Texas knew the men who bought the two guns used in the Zapata killing were buying weapons bound for Mexico but did nothing to stop them.

The practice, which has been highlighted in ongoing investigations of the ATF's Operation Fast and Furious, has been widely criticized by lawmakers.

A House oversight committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over records related to that investigation. President Barack Obama had earlier asserted executive privilege in withholding the documents.

The men were driving back to Mexico City from San Luis Potosi after picking up "sensitive equipment" from an agent based in Monterrey, Mexico, when they were ambushed on the highway. Lawyers for the men alleged that the government knew or should have known that the agents would be in danger by driving though an area patrolled by rival drug cartels.

According to documents filed by the lawyers, Avila, Zapata and others told supervisors they had safety concerns about the trip, but the pair was ordered to go anyway.

"All of these legitimate concerns were put aside ... and agents Avila and Zapata were required to follow orders," the lawyers wrote.

The men were ambushed as they drove an armored Chevrolet Suburban, a high-profile vehicle favored by the cartels. At least two other vehicles forced the men off the road and when Zapata put the sport utility vehicle in park, the doors automatically unlocked. The lawyers argue in the filings that the faulty design allowed the attackers to open the doors of the vehicle and attack the men.

As Zapata tried to shut his door, the attackers were able to "pry their guns though a small opening in the window of the vehicle, which had been lowered during the struggle to lock and close the door," the lawyers wrote.

Julian "Tweety Bird" Zapata Espinoza, an alleged member of the deadly Zetas cartel, has been extradited to the U.S. and is awaiting trial in federal court in Washington on several charges, including murder and attempted murder. The Mexican army has said Zapata Espinoza admitted killing Zapata, mistaking him for a rival gang member. Court records do not show that Zapata Espinoza has entered a plea.