MCALLEN, Texas - The families of a U.S. Customs Enforcement agent killed in a 2011 ambush on a Mexican highway and another agent who survived filed a lawsuit seeking to hold the U.S. government and nearly two-dozen other defendants accountable in the attack.
The sister of the federal agent who was wounded said Wednesday she hoped the lawsuit will force the government to answer their questions.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were attacked on Feb. 15, 2011, in their armoured sport-utility vehicle near San Luis Potosi, Mexico, shortly after picking up some equipment from another agent. Zapata died and Avila was seriously wounded in the attack. Mexican authorities say a drug cartel mistook them for rivals.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Brownsville names nearly two-dozen defendants, among them the agents' supervisors, the company that armoured their vehicle and gun shops that allegedly sold two of the weapons used in the attack. It claims Zapata and Avila never should have been sent on the dangerous mission, their armoured sport utility vehicle was flawed and at least two of the guns used in the attack were bought in the United States and eventually smuggled to Mexico.
"The complaint really is seeking accountability for those people to come forward and not let this happen again," said Magdalena Villalobos, Avila's sister. She said that with the two-year anniversary of the attack fast approaching, the government had failed to answer many of the families' questions.
Zapata and Avila had driven from Mexico City to San Luis Potosi to pick up equipment from another agent from the Monterrey office. Shortly after beginning their return trip, the pair was ambushed by armed men. Zapata parked the vehicle, but when he did so the automatic door locks unlocked. Gunmen pried open the door and in their struggle to close it, the agents partially lowered the window which allowed their attackers to fire inside.
BAE Systems, a U.S. subsidiary of the U.K.-based global defence contractor that outfitted the armoured Suburban, is named in the lawsuit. The case alleges negligence in not deactivating the feature that automatically unlocks the doors.
Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for BAE Systems, said Wednesday the company had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
"We are evaluating the allegations and have no comments at this time, except to note that we are not the vehicle manufacturer and do not make the door locking mechanisms," he said in an email.
The lawsuit names four of the agents' supervisors and alleges negligence for putting the agents in harm's way.
The highway Zapata and Avila travelled on "was known to be patrolled and controlled by a dangerous criminal organization," the lawsuit said. Less than a month before, the U.S. government had sent a notice to all U.S. embassy employees that there was a travel restriction in place and they should not travel in the prohibited areas.
"Despite opposition by Avila and despite having full knowledge of the dangers present with the package pick-up, Mexico supervisors instructed Avila and Zapata to proceed with the directive," according to the lawsuit.
A diplomatic courier service offered a secure option to move the equipment rather than sending two unescorted agents to get it, the lawsuit says.
Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.
"The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement family continues to mourn the loss of Special Agent Zapata," Gonzalez said. "We honour his sacrifice and those of his brothers and sisters in the law enforcement community who have perished in the line of duty."
Julian Zapata Espinoza, one of those allegedly involved in the attack, is awaiting trial on murder and attempted murder charges in federal court in the District of Columbia. Mexican authorities say Zapata Espinoza is a Zetas cartel member who say mistook the agents' in the Suburban for rivals.
The lawsuit says some of the weapons used in the attack made it to Mexico even after federal investigators had opened an investigation against some of those involved in illegal weapons purchases. Several people from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also are named.
Three weapons believed used in the attack have been recovered, though information has only been released on two of them, according to federal court documents.
One was a 7.62 mm AK-47 style Draco handgun that federal authorities traced to a straw purchase by Otilio Osorio from a Texas gun shop. Osorio and his brother were sentenced to prison on weapons charges. Another was an AK-47-style semi-automatic assault rifle bought from JJ's Pawn Shop in Beaumont in another straw purchase and passed into Mexico by Manuel Barba, who has also been sentenced to prison.
But Jim Hedrick, owner of JJ's Pawn Shop, said Wednesday that his store made a legal sale and the gun was later resold. He had not seen the lawsuit.
Osorio, Barba and the pawn shop are among those named as defendants in the lawsuit.
In a procedural notice to the government filed last year, the agents' lawyers sought $25 million for Zapata's family and $12.5 million for Avila. No figures were included in the lawsuit filed Tuesday.
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