Family of slain ICE agent says govt won’t release murder details

The family of Jaime Zapata, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who was murdered in Mexico, says the federal government won't release key details of his death.

The Zapata family told The Lookout in a statement through their attorney, Raymond Thomas, that their efforts to find out if guns from the disastrous "Fast and Furious" operation were involved in the crime have been rebuffed.

"It has been almost six months since Jaime's murder, and as parents, we are anxious to know how and why our beloved son was killed so needlessly," the family said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have both taken up the family's cause, asking the FBI in a letter on Friday to answer questions about Zapata's death. They asked whether Zapata was armed at the time of the shooting and whether he was traveling in an armored car.

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Legislative Affairs Secretary Nelson Peacock answered that the agency has made it a priority to learn exactly how the murder occurred, according to the LA Times.

In February, Zapata and another ICE agent, Victor Avila, were run off the road in the tiny San Luis Potosi state in Mexico and and fired upon by drug cartel members. The Mexican Army captured the head of the Zetas cartel, Jesus Enrique Rejon, earlier this month, and accused him of orchestrating the murder, though U.S. authorities haven't independently confirmed that charge. Rejon told the Mexican government in a video interview that the ICE agents were in an armored vehicle and that the cartel members didn't realize they were U.S. federal agents when they attacked.

The Zapata family said it asked the FBI for details about the death in June--and specifically asked if any of the guns the gang members used in the killing were connected to the now-defunct Fast and Furious operation--but have been told that releasing that information could compromise the investigation. Under that program, which had been administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), agents with the ATF sold U.S. guns to straw buyers who then sold the arms to drug cartels. The idea behind the operation was to more effectively track down and arrest members of Mexican-based drug gangs. In December, two of the guns sold in the program were found near where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed, NPR reports.

Some Democratic lawmakers are now pressing for Congress to pass a bill that would make "straw purchasing"--buying a gun and selling it to someone who isn't authorized to have one--illegal under a new federal firearms statute. The National Rifle Association opposes that effort, arguing that existing laws are already sufficient to prosecute traffickers. (CLARIFICATION: According to the Justice Department, straw purchasers can be charged on "paper violations" for selling guns without a license, but that can be difficult to prove and does not come with a stringent sentence, which makes prosecutors unlikely to pursue those charges. The Democratic lawmakers and the DOJ hope to make gun trafficking itself a separate, federal crime, while the NRA argues that's not necessary because there are already laws under which straw purchasers can be prosecuted.)

ICE Director John Morton briefly visited the Zapata family in Brownsville earlier this month, The Brownsville Herald reported. He called the family "the salt of the earth" and vowed that his agency would not let the legacy of Zapata's death rest with his funeral. The family expressed "gratitude" to Morton in the statement.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested straw purchasers could not be prosecuted under existing laws. A clarification has been added above.