WASHINGTON—Julian Zapata Espinoza, also known as “Piolin,” 32, pleaded guilty today to the murder of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE Special Agent Victor Avila in Mexico. The court also unsealed today the guilty pleas of three other defendants on related murder, attempted murder, racketeering, and accessory charges.
The guilty pleas, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, were announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen, Jr.; Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division; and ICE Director John Morton.
As set forth in court filings, on February 15, 2011, Espinoza, a commander in 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 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 American diplomats from the U.S. Embassy, 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.
On April 19, 2011, Espinoza was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia on multiple counts pertaining to the murder of ICE Special Agent Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE Special Agent Avila and, on December 20, 2011, was extradited from Mexico to the United States. 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 the announcing the guilty plea of Espinoza, prosecutors also announced related guilty pleas by three other defendants. Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, also known as “Catracho,” 25, pleaded guilty on August 1, 2011, to federal charges concerning the murder of Special Agent Zapata and attempted murder of Special Agent Avila. Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, also known as “Cacho,” 30, pleaded guilty on January 4, 2012, also to federal charges concerning the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents. Francisco Carbajal Flores, also known as “Dalmata,” 38, pleaded guilty on January 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 February 15, 2011 ambush of the two special agents. The fourth defendant, Flores, acknowledged assisting Zetas members after the February 15 attack.
All four defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison. No sentencing date has been set for the defendants.
“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 Raman. “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 Machen. “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 Hosko. “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.”
“Today’s announcement is a very important milestone in the effort to see that justice is served in the murder of ICE Special Agent Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE Special Agent Victor Avila,” said ICE 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.”
This case is being investigated by the FBI, with substantial assistance from ICE; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Customs and Border Protection; the Diplomatic Security Service; and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The case is being prosecuted by the Organized Crime and Gang Section and the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division 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.