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ICE Agents Ambushed by Mexican Cartel Received Insufficient Support for Dangerous Mission, Investigation Finds

Disclosure of Wrongdoing
OSC today released investigative findings that shed new light on a 2011 tragedy involving two ICE agents who were ambushed along a dangerous stretch of highway in Mexico by the Los Zetas drug cartel.

​The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today released investigative findings that shed new light on a 2011 tragedy involving two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents who were ambushed along a dangerous stretch of highway in Mexico by the Los Zetas drug cartel. Special Agent Victor Avila was severely wounded but survived the ambush, while his partner, Special Agent Jaime Zapata, lost his life. Agent Avila later disclosed to OSC that ICE failed to provide adequate training or the necessary equipment for such a dangerous mission. Agent Avila alleged that officials at the ICE Office of the Attaché in Mexico City engaged in gross mismanagement when they sent him and Agent Zapata on assignment, without suitable support or training, through areas controlled or monitored by the drug cartel. 

“Having met personally with Agent Avila, I am honored to provide more clarity to the missteps and 'managerial complacency' immediately preceding this deadly confrontation," said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner. “Agents Avila and Zapata were put in harm's way while serving their country, without adequate support. We owe it to those who continue to put their lives on the line to ensure our agents have the resources they need when assigned to dangerous missions."

The investigation, conducted by the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, substantiated that ICE officials failed to provide the agents additional support for their mission from either U.S. personnel or Mexican law enforcement. The agency also failed to properly brief and prepare the agents in advance of the assignment to discuss the cargo, security measures, and any other relevant information. The report confirmed that there was “a known lack of diligence with regard to the maintenance of the ICE armored vehicles."  For example, it was known prior to the incident that the agents' armored vehicle did not have properly functioning tracking equipment.

The investigation revealed that, at the time of the attack, management lacked specific policies and procedures for the execution of the agency mission in Mexico. For example, the agency lacked formalized policies with respect to travel; did not provide counter threat training to those stationed in Mexico; and did not provide armored vehicle training to employees in Mexico. Additionally, the Mexico City office suffered from weak operational security, which was evident in the lack of planning and execution for the trip taken by Agent Avila and Agent Zapata.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, ICE took strong steps to address this mismanagement by:

  • Establishing a Personnel Recovery Unit to “provid[e] ICE employees and their families with the knowledge and capabilities to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and survive an isolating event while deployed overseas";
  • Implementing restrictions on driving in Mexico, “to include no self-driving outside of city limits" and requiring “a minimum of two people and 24-hour notice to the [Regional Security Officer]";
  • Increasing training for all personnel assigned to Mexico, including Foreign Affairs Counter Threat training;
  • Mandating that all personnel complete High Threat Security Overseas prior to deployment to Mexico on [temporary duty];
  • Mandating armored vehicle training for all personnel in Mexico; and
  • Disabling the automatic unlocking mechanism in (HSI) armored vehicles.

The findings were provided to the President and Congress and forwarded to HSI Executive Leadership to consider disciplinary action.