Retired supervisory special agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations Victor Avila wants to raise awareness about a fellow agent, Jaime Zapata, who died at the hands of the Los Zetas drug cartel while on assignment.
The ambush occurred Feb. 15, 2011, in San Luis Potos, Mexico.
He told his story during the Ector County Republican Women meeting Wednesday at the Odessa Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. Avila has written a book titled “Agent Under Fire: A Murder and a Manifesto.”
Avila and Zapata were set to go down Highway 57. Agents were prohibited from driving down that highway by strict orders from the U.S. Ambassador.
Avila said you needed written consent from the ambassador to drive down it. He challenged the assignment, but his superiors ignored his concerns.
Mexico, he said, is categorized at Level 4, the highest risk level, just like Afghanistan or Iraq. They had no police escort, no other U.S. agents.
They made contact with agents in Monterrey to pick up boxes of tracking devices and electronic surveillance equipment for a money laundering case.
“We’re driving back. We stopped to have lunch. And after lunch I gave the keys to Jaime Zapata and I tell him … to help me drive. I was in the process of putting together a human trafficking conference and takedowns …,” Avila said.
While Zapata was driving, Avila was going to catch up on work, so he called his supervisor and gave him their location and an estimated time of arrival to Mexico City.
Avila said he would take over from there because the traffic would be so bad and Zapata had never driven an armored vehicle before.
“And, so we head off and within 15 minutes, two SUVs are on our tail. They basically push us off and force us off to the side of the road; AK-47’s out and they start pushing us off. … They push us off to the side, and through all the chaos in the commotion, my … window was lowered by two inches. They were able to introduce an AK-47 and a handgun here by my head, and I raised the window and caught the barrel of both guns and tried to wiggle them out of there. Without notice they opened fire into the cabin of the Suburban striking, especially to Jaime Zapata several times, lethally on his left leg with an AK-47 round. I got shot three times, once in the chest, and twice in my left leg,” Avila said.
During the commotion, Avila said, they tried to identify themselves. There are eight shooters pointing AK-47s and long guns at them.
Avila said he yelled at the top of his lungs that they were Americans, U.S. Embassy employees and U.S. diplomats and this was a diplomatic vehicle. He tells the shooters they are confusing him and Zapata with someone else.
They’re shouting back in Spanish telling them to get out of the car and open the door.
“When the shots rang, I was able to raise the window. And they shot over 100 rounds at the Suburban. I had, Special Agent Jaime Zapata, who was already becoming unresponsive, I pressed his leg onto the gas. I put the Suburban in gear and crashed one of their SUVs that was blocking us. … And then I was trying to get the Suburban back on the highway, but it just rolled into the median. And that’s where it ended up. The SUVs take off, but one of them does a U-turn, comes back, parks right in front of the Suburban. Two shooters come out with AK-47s … They stand right in front and just shoot and try to penetrate the glass. And so I’m standing here before you, by the grace of God …,” Avila said.
He was able to make a distress call to the embassy and went through a number of channels he got to someone he trusted and they dispatched a helicopter.
The helicopter took them to the hospital in San Luis Potos. Avila said he wouldn’t take any treatment while there because he thought the cartels were going to finish him off while he was there.
“I was fighting the staff and I didn’t care. I didn’t tell him who I was; not until the reinforcements of the Mexican Federal Police that they were sending, the trusted sources that eventually surrounded the hospital and made it secure that I kind of went off on the staff and I said, my name is Victor Avila. I’m an American. And I get chills when I tell you that because you see me I’m Hispanic. My parents are from Mexico. I’m a first-generation American, but I was a foreigner in that country. I did not belong there. And it felt terrible. It felt lonely that your own heritage, your own country would feel that way. For all intents and purposes, I could have been in China. That’s how I felt.”
Avila said he was eventually told that Zapata had died.
“… This all happened under the Obama administration and the unfortunate circumstances that my family and I had to go through, because of that administration. You’ll read it and you’ll be, you’ll be angered by that, because people ask me which one was worse the shooting or the aftermath and I had to think about it. That’s how bad the aftermath was.”
Avila also gave a presentation on conditions at the border both in the Mission/McAllen area and at El Paso, which is wide open.
At the Mission/McAllen area, Avila showed slides of men, women and children, but in the El Paso area, it was a video of men running across the desert.
Avila said he talked to Border Patrol agents in the Valley and they were beyond overwhelmed. He said they just want to do their jobs. They didn’t want to be caretakers or processors.
He said people are either going straight into McAllen or El Paso. If they test positive for COVID-19, they are sent to a hotel to quarantine and if they’re negative they go to Catholic Charities where they are given necessities and some money and can get a bus or plane ticket without ID.
He said they aren’t DNA tested, so they don’t know if the children are with their parents.
Avila urged people to get involved in politics at the local level because that’s where the most change can be made; then work their way to the state and national level.