WASHINGTON — A Mexican national pleaded guilty today to the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agent and the attempted murder of another HSI special agent in Mexico. The court also unsealed the guilty pleas of three other defendants on related murder, attempted murder, racketeering and accessory charges. All four defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Julian Zapata Espinoza, aka Piolin, 32, pleaded guilty today to the murder of HSI Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of HSI Special Agent Victor Avila in Mexico.
"Today's announcement is a very important milestone in the effort to see that justice is served in the murder of HSI Special Agent Zapata and the attempted murder of HSI Special Agent Victor Avila," said ICE John Director Morton. "Both men were trying to make the world a safer place, and today's result is a very welcome step to honor their service and sacrifice."
As set forth in court filings, Espinoza, a commander in the Los Zetas Cartel — a heavily armed Mexican narco-trafficking cartel and transnational criminal organization — attempted to hijack Special Agent Zapata's and Special Agent Avila's armored government vehicle Feb. 15, 2011, as the agents were driving on Highway 57 in San Luis Potosi.
Two armed Zetas hit squads — or estacas — forced the agents off the road and surrounded their vehicle. Espinoza, the leader of the attack, ordered the agents to exit their vehicle. When the agents refused and attempted to identify themselves as diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the hit squad members fired weapons near and into the vehicle striking both agents.
Estaca members continued to fire at the vehicle as the agents attempted to escape by driving away. Special Agent Zapata died as a result of the gunshot wounds he suffered during the attack, and Special Agent Avila was seriously injured.
Espinoza was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia April 19, 2011, on multiple counts pertaining to the murder of Special Agent Zapata and the attempted murder of Special Agent Avila. He was extradited from Mexico to the United States Dec. 20, 2011.
"Special Agent Zapata died for his country in a senseless and brutal attack, and Special Agent Avila was grievously wounded in the same ambush by members of Los Zetas Cartel," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman, Justice Department's Criminal Division. "Both men are American heroes who dedicated themselves to protecting the United States, only to be attacked by vicious thugs. I hope that today's announcement of guilty pleas by the cartel members directly responsible for the attack brings some measure of justice to the victims and their families. A team of dedicated prosecutors and investigators has worked day and night to identify and hold these defendants accountable. Our work is far from over, and we will continue to devote our full resources and work with our law enforcement partners here and abroad to investigate and prosecute those responsible."
"The deadly ambush of two highly dedicated and courageous American law enforcement officers by the Los Zetas drug cartel demanded an intense, dedicated and forceful response," said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., District of Columbia. "The message to any criminal who dares to commit an act of violence against a U.S. law enforcement officer serving in a foreign land is unmistakable — if you commit such a heinous crime, we will not forget, we will not falter, and we will not rest until you are brought to justice. Our work in this critical case will continue until all of those who participated in the murder of Special Agent Zapata and attempted murder of Special Agent Avila are held accountable."
"With the assistance of our law enforcement partners, assailants responsible for murdering Agent Zapata and wounding Agent Avila have been brought to justice," said FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, Criminal Investigative Division. "While there is nothing we can do to change what happened that fateful day in Mexico, let it be known that an attack against any federal agent serving his or her country is an attack on all federal agents and as such remains a priority for the FBI until those responsible are brought to justice."
This morning, the defendant entered a guilty plea before Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth to the murder of Special Agent Zapata, an officer and employee of the United States, and the attempted murder of Special Agent Avila, an officer and employee of the United States.
In addition to announcing the guilty plea of Espinoza, prosecutors also announced related guilty pleas by three other defendants:
- Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, aka Catracho, 25, pleaded guilty Aug. 1, 2011, to federal charges concerning the murder of Special Agent Zapata and attempted murder of Special Agent Avila.
- Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, aka Cacho, 30, pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2012, to federal charges concerning the murder and attempted murder of the HSI special agents.
- Francisco Carbajal Flores, aka Dalmata, 38, pleaded guilty 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 HSI special 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 HSI special agents. The fourth defendant, Flores, acknowledged assisting Zetas members after the Feb. 15, 2011, attack.
No sentencing date has been set for the defendants.
This case is being investigated by the FBI, with substantial assistance of the following agencies: HSI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State; and U.S. Marshals Service.
The case is being prosecuted by the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Gang Section, Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. The Office of International Affairs of the Justice Department's Criminal Division provided substantial assistance.