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Agent Zapata

A reporter unravels the sequence of events that led to the death of a U.S. federal agent in Mexico.

A reporter unravels the sequence of events that led to the death of a U.S. federal agent in Mexico.

By Mary Cuddehe

By Mary Cuddehe

The Atavist Magazine, No. 19


Mary Cuddehe is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Rolling StoneMonoclePoderThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe AtlanticThe Nation, and The New Republic, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Editor: Charles Homans

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Research and Production: Nadia Wilson

Cover and Interior Illustrations: Daniel Hertzberg

Music: Morricone Youth

Fact Checker: Thomas Stackpole

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper



Published in October 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

Early in the afternoon on February 15, 2011, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents drove south on Federal Highway 57, through the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental in central Mexico, in an armored Chevrolet Suburban. The day was perfectly clear, and the agents could see for miles.

Jaime Zapata was behind the wheel. Thirty-two years old, reedy and loose limbed, he was known for his wide grin and practical jokes around the ICE offices in Laredo, Texas, where he was based. Victor Avila, riding shotgun, was his near opposite: a serious, even intimidating veteran agent with a wife and two children. The men had similar backgrounds. Both were Mexican-American, were bilingual, and had been raised in Texas border towns, where, it is sometimes said, a kid growing up has two career choices: become a cop or become a criminal.

At dawn that morning, they had set out from Avila’s apartment in Mexico City, winding north through the rambling outskirts of the city toward San Luis Potosí state. At a meeting point along the highway, two agents from the U.S. consulate in Monterrey were waiting for them, and together the four men loaded the SUV with equipment that Zapata and Avila were supposed to bring back to the American embassy. There were about a dozen boxes in all, enough to fill the entire length of the Suburban except the front seats. The men said their good-byes, and Zapata and Avila turned back toward the capital.

Avila had been working in the ICE attaché office in the American embassy for a year and a half. Zapata was new, on temporary assignment, only nine days removed from his post in Loredo. At around one in the afternoon, he called Stacye Joyner, his girlfriend back in Texas, on his cell phone. They were still hours from Mexico City then; he surveyed the road ahead, the yellowed grass and big sky. “What does it look like?” she asked him.

“It looks like Texas,” he told her. “I’ll send you a picture.”

Two

The building that houses ICE’s Laredo headquarters, one of the tallest in the city of 240,000, has all the architectural verve of a regional bank office—a desert-hued box with a few decorative urns and a patch of grass out front. That drab exterior conceals one of the U.S. government’s busiest hubs on the country’s southern border. Not only ICE but also the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Customs and Border Protection each occupy a floor. ICE alone has about 100 men and women working out of Laredo. By early 2011, the agency—which is the main investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security—had gotten so big that Laredo was sending agents like Zapata to the U.S. embassy in Mexico City to shore up its investigations.

As Zapata was barreling down Highway 57, his colleagues in Laredo were gathering in a brightly lit conference room for an all-hands meeting. At the front of the room was Jerry Robinette, the special agent in charge of the swath of south Texas from San Antonio to the border. Robinette, a short, bald man with a white moustache, was infamous among his subordinates for extending the standard tenure in Laredo from three to five years. It was an out-of-the-way place with crummy food and little entertainment to speak of, a far cry from their colleagues’ posts in Southern California and Miami. But what Laredo lacked in amenities, it made up for in action. The bridges that connect the city with its Mexican sister, Nuevo Laredo, and Interstate 35, the highway that runs north from Laredo to Texas’s major cities, are crucial infrastructure for the outlaw industries that ICE is charged with combating: human trafficking, drug running, money laundering. 

That afternoon, Robinette and the other managers were outlining their plans for the year. As the gathered agents shifted listlessly in their chairs, Robinette’s BlackBerry pinged. So did the manager’s next to him, and the others on down the line. One by one they glanced at their phones, then filed out of the room. The agents waited uneasily. “It was like, cricket-cricket—what’s going on?” one of them later recalled. When the bosses returned after a few minutes, they were stone-faced.


Minutes earlier, Zapata and Avila had been driving outside Santa María del Río, a small town in southern San Luis Potosí, when two SUVs sped past them down the highway. There were at least eight people inside the vehicles, and as they passed Avila saw that they were holding their guns in plain view. He had a good idea of who they were. Monterrey, 350 miles to the north, was a base of operations for the Zetas, a rogue paramilitary force that had split off from the Gulf drug cartel the year before and had since become the most feared criminal organization in Mexico. The Zetas had set themselves apart from the competition with their uncommon brutality, massacring migrants, detonating car bombs, and hurling grenades into crowds. Lately, they had moved into San Luis Potosí.

The SUVs disappeared down the road. But soon they reappeared on the horizon, still traveling in the same direction but now moving very slowly and occupying both of the southbound lanes, as if one were overtaking the other. The agents’ car got closer. Suddenly, one of the mysterious SUVs dropped back and tucked in behind Zapata. The other swerved in front. Instinctively, Zapata stepped on the gas and rammed the vehicle ahead of theirs, but it was too late. They were trapped.

Forced to a stop on the shoulder of the highway, Zapata put the Suburban in park. The gunmen poured out of their vehicles and fanned around the agents, screaming at them in Spanish to open the doors. The agents were nervous but assumed they were safe: The Suburban, they knew, was a veritable tank, armored by the British defense contractor BAE Systems to withstand automatic gunfire and fragmentation grenades. They hunkered down to wait out the attack. Then one of the assailants tried the handle on the driver-side door. It was hard to say who was more surprised, the men inside or the men outside, when it opened.

Placing the vehicle in park had automatically unlocked the doors. It was a handy feature found in the best new American cars—and one that no one had bothered to disable in the bulletproofed SUV. For a moment everyone froze, then Zapata lunged to close the door. By the time he got it shut, however, the agents realized that, in the commotion, one of them had inadvertently lowered the passenger-side window—just a crack, but enough for the men outside to jam the barrels of what looked to be a 9-millimeter pistol and an assault rifle into the gap. Avila yelled that they worked for the U.S. embassy, that they were Americans, as if the words were a shield.

The SUV erupted with gunfire, and a bullet tore through Avila’s left leg. The noise was deafening, and he singed his hands as he tried to push the gun barrels out of the vehicle. But the assassins must have decided that they couldn’t quite reach him from where they stood. They withdrew, and Avila was finally able to roll up the window. The men fanned out around the SUV once more, firing at least 80 more rounds. The Suburban shook, the back panel began to splinter, but the bulletproofing held. And then, as fast as they approached, the hit men drove away.

Zapata put his foot on the gas, lurching the car forward, but quickly slumped over in the driver’s seat. He had been hit several times at close range, and his femoral artery was severed. Avila pressed his hands over Zapata’s heart. He searched in vain for a place on his body to apply pressure, anywhere he could stanch the bleeding. Almost nothing was left of Zapata’s right side.

“I’m going to die,” Zapata told him.

“No, you’re not,” Avila said. “I’m calling for help. You’re going to be fine.” There was a distress signal hooked up to the Suburban’s GPS, he thought, but it didn’t seem to be working. On a cell phone, he started calling every number he could think of for backup. Finally, someone picked up one of the phones on his desk at the embassy, and the chief of the federal police dispatched a helicopter.

Cars hurtled past on the highway, none of them stopping—no one was about to get involved in a shoot-out. At one point, Avila later said, an ambulance pulled over and a man got out and approached the car, walking through the bullet casings surrounding the Suburban. He said he had come to help, but Avila, terrified that the man was another assailant in disguise, refused to get out of the vehicle. The ambulance drove off, and Avila and Zapata were alone again.

In the conference room back in Laredo, the bosses delivered the news. There had been an ambush in central Mexico, the assembled ICE agents were told, and it appeared that one of their own, Jaime Zapata, had been involved. The room went quiet. Not knowing what else to do, the agents clasped hands and began to pray.

After 40 minutes, Avila was still waiting along the highway. His ears were ringing, his left leg swelling up like a balloon filling with air. The nice young agent he had just met sat beside him, folded over in his seat. Jaime Zapata was dead.

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Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

Three

A few hours later, Mary Zapata was in her bedroom scratching a lottery ticket when her husband, Amador, burst in. Outside, government-issue SUVs were lining up in the driveway of the small white house with olive trim where the couple lived in Brownsville, Texas.

Later, she would recall what happened next in fragments. There were the agents from her son Jaime’s ICE office in Laredo coming through the doorway; “He’s been injured,” she remembered one of them saying. There were the family members and friends filtering into the living room, the agents writing down names and numbers, talking on their phones, closing off the street outside. And there was the knock on the door to the bathroom, where she had barricaded herself to make a phone call. It was her eldest son. “Jaime’s dead,” he told her.

Over the next week, the Zapatas proceeded numbly through the kind of rituals that follow a public death. President Barack Obama called the house to offer condolences. When Jaime’s body finally arrived at the Brownsville airport, in a coffin draped with an American flag, a long motorcade accompanied it to the funeral home. On the morning of February 22, more than 1,000 mourners crowded into the city’s event center for the funeral Mass. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, and ICE director John Morton all offered eulogies. Zapata had served “the cause of justice and the rule of law,” Napolitano told the crowd. “We must and will eradicate this scourge that took his life,” Holder said. Together they watched as Victor Avila, his wounds hidden beneath a dark suit, was rolled in a wheelchair to the side of Zapata’s coffin, where he laid a single flower.

The following day, the Mexican army raided four Zeta safe houses in San Luis Potosí and emerged with six men they claimed had taken part in the attack. They were presented that afternoon at a press conference in Mexico City, handcuffed and dressed in the kind of reflective orange vests that highway construction workers wear, led before the cameras by grim-eyed soldiers whose faces were concealed behind balaclavas. In the center of the group was the alleged ringleader, a lantern-jawed San Luis Potosí native named Julian Zapata, known among the Zetas as El Piolín (Tweety Bird). In custody, the authorities said, he had already confessed to participating in the attack on the ICE agent of the same name.

In Mexico, the announcement was something of a disappointment: Rumors had been circulating that the army had arrested a Zeta leader of far greater significance, perhaps Jesus “El Mamito” Rejón, the regional boss and the highest-ranked narcotraficante on the DEA’s most-wanted list, or Miguel “Z-40” Treviño, one of the gang’s two leaders. El Piolín was not much more than a local thug. At the press conference, facing a barrage of camera flashes, he appeared at times to be smirking.

Four

I visited Jaime Zapata’s parents’ home for the first time a little more than a year after their son’s funeral. Mary, a tall and poised woman with a round face and short brown hair, answered the door and invited me into the living room. After a few minutes, Amador, her shy, avuncular husband, shuffled in quietly and sat on the couch beside her. The inside of the house was all white, even the floors. Sun flooded through a skylight overhead, illuminating the rustic Spanish-style furniture.

Their son’s death had been an anomaly. In the past six years, the drug war has claimed at least 60,000 lives in Mexico, including those of plenty of U.S. citizens: a Texas missionary shot in her pickup truck on a Tamaulipas highway, an American consulate employee and her husband gunned down in the street in Ciudad Juárez. Until last year, however, not one of them was a U.S. federal agent. A retired DEA agent told me that, of the 500 Mexican traffickers he had interviewed over the course of his career, not a single one had ever admitted to targeting Americans. “It’s simply not done,” he said. “It’s bad for business.” A high-level cartel informant offered a similar assessment. “In Mexico,” he told me, “the word is, you fuck with an American agent, you’re through.”

Still, it seemed like a straightforward enough case of gangland murder—and I had come to Brownsville to find out why it hadn’t turned out that way at all. Within days of Zapata’s funeral, the circumstances of his death had become the subject of government stonewalling and political controversy, thoroughly webbed over with conspiracy theories and rumors. Zapata’s parents were as confounded as anyone. By the time I arrived at their home, they had become frequent guests on television news programs in the United States and Mexico, plaintively asking that the U.S. government provide them with the still-disputed details of the events that had led to their son’s death.

Sitting on the couch, the Zapatas seemed at once exhausted by and seasoned in the interview process. Mary was the family narrator, and Amador struggled to get in a word. At one point, he leaned back and let out a loud sigh. “This has turned our lives upside down,” he said.

Mary is 62 and Amador is 65; both are retired from jobs in the public sector, Mary as a secretary for child-protective services and Amador as a livestock inspector for the Department of Agriculture. They married in 1972, following a yearlong courtship that began when Amador was in the Army and Mary, at the urging of Amador’s aunt, a family friend, began writing to him while he was stationed in Vietnam. Like many Tejano families, the Zapatas had deep ties in Mexico and crossed the border often. After their first son, Amador III, was born, in 1973, the family moved to the Gulf state of Veracruz, where Amador took a job eradicating screwworm from local cattle. But the Zapatas found that they missed Texas. By August 1977, Mary was pregnant again, and they moved back to Brownsville. The following spring, Jaime Jorge Zapata was born, a beautiful blond boy with velvet eyebrows.

The Zapata children—ultimately five boys in all—grew up roaming the lush lowlands of the Rio Grande delta, learning to hunt and fish and earning Boy Scout badges. The family was tightly knit; Jaime in particular grew close to his mother and in time developed an almost parental concern for his younger brothers. By middle school, he was dark haired and tall, approaching six foot four, a physically imposing but still ungainly teen whose friends called him Dick Arms and Goofy.

After high school, Zapata went to San Antonio State University, where he majored in criminal justice, though he spent most of his time drinking beer and playing PlayStation. Back in Brownsville, he had taken a breezy approach to his studies—his friends remember him as the kid who could drink anybody under the table, who loved taking weekend trips to the nearby spring-break mecca of South Padre Island—and was smart enough to get decent grades without trying too hard. College was different, though, and four years later he returned to Brownsville, degreeless and adrift. “I think it’s time that you settled,” his mother told him. “You’ve already partied enough.” By then his elder brother Amador was working as a special agent with Customs and Border Protection. Jaime took stock of his own life and reenrolled in school, this time at the University of Texas at Brownsville, graduating four years later with a criminal justice degree.

His first job in law enforcement was as a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Arizona, prowling the desert for coyotes. Less than a year later, in the fall of 2006, a position with ICE in Laredo came open. In the frontier-security hierarchy, patrolmen are the grunts. Working for ICE was a step up. Zapata had to go to Georgia for six months of training, but he figured it was worth it. He would be an investigator now—using his brains, not his flashlight.

Five

Zapata arrived in Laredo in October 2006. His first assignment was investigating human-trafficking networks. After a year in the Arizona desert, it felt good to be back in south Texas, and the new job offered an appealing mix of competition, adventure, and adrenaline. Zapata was well liked by his colleagues, even if they grumbled about his enthusiasm, which sometimes looked a little too much like brown-nosing. (“He was always volunteering for shit,” one ICE agent recalled.) As a teenager, he had always been the first kid to jump into the cold swimming pool; now he was the first agent to rush through the door on a raid. He became known for his soothing bedside manner—he was the guy to whom frightened targets, particularly women, warmed first. One of Zapata’s coworkers recalled an ICE raid on a house in Laredo used by a criminal ring that bused illegal immigrants across the bridge into Texas using counterfeit immigration papers. When the agents barged through the door, the woman inside was so terrified that she urinated on herself and refused to speak with anyone—until Zapata arrived. “She was like, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to him,’” the agent said. The woman’s statements “sealed everyone up, absolutely sealed the deal on everyone.”

At the time, agents in Laredo were working on the periphery of a war that had yet to be declared. Two months after Zapata arrived in the office, Mexican president Felipe Calderón, limping from a tough election, would send 4,000 soldiers and police to his home state of Michoacán to fight the drug cartels that had taken control of the region—the first major government strike against the country’s narcotraficantes and the official beginning of the conflict that has since consumed whole regions of the country. But in Nuevo Laredo, the city just across the Mexican border from Zapata’s new post, normal life had begun to erode several years earlier. As recently as 2002, it was common for residents on both sides of the border to move freely between the cities, the Americans taking advantage of Nuevo Laredo’s bargain dentists and booming discos. By 2006, however, many residents from the U.S. side hadn’t “gone across” in years; the sister city had become a forbidding and sinister place.

On a map, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo look like a single sprawling metropolis, shaped like a cowboy boot. Nuevo Laredo is the westward-pointing toe, separated from its American sibling by the sluggish brown expanse of the Rio Grande. Nuevo Laredo contains more than half of the cities’ population, packed into a quarter of their total area.

The cities are connected by five bridges, over which some 1.5 million trucks and 5 million cars pass each year, comprising the country’s busiest commercial land crossing—and an important node in the global black market. Customs agents in Laredo inspect vehicles traversing the river but can’t thoroughly check them all. When I visited the city last spring, a retired DEA agent drove me to a long-haul crossing and parked his car. “You see that?” he said, pointing at the line of rigs queued up at the bridge. “There’s definitely a load. There is always a load.”

In one form or another, illicit substances have been smuggled across the border as long as the United States has deemed them illicit. Opium and marijuana cultivation in Mexico dates back a century. During Prohibition, Mexicans set up borderland bars to cater to wayward gringos. Mexico was, in fact, the first of the two countries to ban marijuana, but by the 1970s the U.S. had surpassed its neighbor in passing and enforcing antidrug laws, and the modern trafficking system was born.

In the 1980s, the trade in heroin, marijuana, and cocaine was controlled largely by the Guadalajara cartel and its legendary leader, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known in Mexico as El Padrino, the Godfather. By then the U.S. was closing off the Caribbean routes that smugglers had used to move cocaine from Colombia into south Florida, shifting them overland across Mexico. Colombia’s crackdown on Pablo Escobar and other kingpins helped shape the transition. Opportunities to ferry contraband into the U.S. grew exponentially after 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement dramatically increased the flow of goods across the border, and in the wake of Mexico’s 2000 election, when seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party came to a close. As political power was decentralized, drug-trafficking organizations began to flourish like never before.

Today, the majority of the marijuana and methamphetamine produced in Mexico is sold in the U.S., and most of the cocaine from Andean countries like Colombia and Peru moves through Mexico on its way north. The more than $1 trillion the U.S. government has spent on the drug war since the early 1970s has proven no match for the market effects of its citizens’ appetite for narcotics. Estimates of the total value of the industry vary wildly, starting under $10 billion, but they range as high as $40 billion—about what Americans spend on wine each year.

Up until the 1990s, the drug trade at the Laredo crossing was the province of freelancers. Then, as the decade drew to a close, a trafficker named Osiel Cárdenas took the helm of the Gulf cartel, which controlled the regional drug trade from its base in Matamoros. A 32-year-old former mechanic who rose quickly through the Gulf ranks, Cárdenas earned the nickname the Friend Killer after he assassinated his associate and rival Salvador Gómez to secure the leadership of the cartel.

If Cárdenas was ruthless, he was also an innovative businessman. The future of the Gulf cartel, he saw, lay in controlling access to the lucrative I-35 corridor, which runs north from Laredo and would enable his organization to reach major distribution hubs like Dallas and Houston. But Cárdenas was also facing territorial incursions from the west by the Sinaloa cartel, the largest player in the Mexican drug trade. To counter the threat, he built an elite security detail, hiring away deserters from the Mexican army’s special forces. (At least one of the twenty-odd soldiers had likely been trained by the U.S. Army, according to a State Department cable later released by WikiLeaks.) The new enforcers called themselves the Zetas.

Wherever Cárdenas went, his soldier protégés went, too. The Friend Killer felt that a little extra protection was never a bad thing. Not only was he fighting to keep his territory, but he had also been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since a 1999 confrontation with a pair of federal agents in Matamoros, in which Cárdenas’s gunmen had surrounded the Americans’ car; Cárdenas himself had screamed obscenities at them, waving a gold-plated Kalashnikov. He was arrested and extradited to the United States four years later, following a gun battle with Mexican special forces soldiers. His bust fed into a myth of exceptionalism: U.S. agents, virtually alone among the players in the increasingly chaotic drug war, were off-limits.

After Cárdenas’s arrest, the Zetas—who by then had come to rival the Gulf leadership in power and allegiance—had no boss to guard anymore and dispersed to various towns and cities, extending their influence. “Each one became a leader,” says a high-level informant who worked for the Gulf cartel under Cárdenas. “If they had stayed bodyguards of the new boss of the cartel, this whole wave of violence in the country wouldn’t be happening.” In 2010, the Zetas finally split from the Gulf and quickly wrestled control of Nuevo Laredo away from their old employers.

Today, the Zetas run the city’s downtown from a red adobe building with arched doorways a few blocks from the pedestrian bridge to Texas. No longer content merely to traffic drugs, they have diversified into kidnapping (though they rarely return the kidnapped), extortion, and human trafficking, among other pursuits. Nuevo Laredo shopkeepers wishing to stay in business must pay the Zetas a tax to do so or risk mortal consequences. Zeta lookouts in T-shirts and jeans are ubiquitous, posted opposite the bridge and eyeing everyone who spills off.

The morning I crossed over myself, in May, I was the only gringa in sight. The man I was with, a local dentist I’ll call Luis, was nervous about the attention I might attract, and he grabbed my hand as we stepped off the bridge. In Zeta-occupied Nuevo Laredo, the rhythms of normal life and flashes of barbarism exist alongside each other with jarring incongruity. In one of the town’s central plazas, children were performing a Oaxacan dance. They wore burlap sacks over their heads, with big eyes and lips painted on them, and their parents laughed and snapped pictures as the giant faces spun and hopped around. Then Luis and I turned a corner and passed the husk of a building still smoldering from a fire. “What was that place?” I asked. Luis just shrugged, guiding me to the other side of the street. He estimated that Nuevo Laredo’s population had dropped 70 percent in recent years. I balked at the number. “It’s true,” he said. “Everyone who can leave has left.”

That afternoon, a car bomb exploded in front of a police station, wounding 10, and I learned that someone had set fire to a disco the night before. Curious if it was the building I had walked by, I tried searching for images online but found none. For Mexican journalists, reporting on the drug war has become nearly as hazardous as fighting it, and much of the country’s once dogged local coverage has been replaced by a frightened silence. A few days after my visit, Zane Plemmons, a Texas photojournalist on assignment in Nuevo Laredo for the Mexican newspaper El Debate, disappeared; a receptionist at the hotel where he was staying told his family that armed men wearing masks had cleared his belongings out of his room.

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Six

After a few years, Zapata’s hard work paid off, and he was invited to join ICE’s elite Border Enforcement Security Task Force. The job pulled him deeper into the workings of the vast criminal economy spanning the river. Now he was probing gun-trafficking rings, drug smugglers, and money launderers—virtually anyone and anything that could be considered a threat to American interests. That summer, Zapata’s team intercepted 80 firearms en route from Phoenix, by way of San Antonio, to the Sinaloa cartel. On another occasion, he led ICE agents in a raid on a ranch off a dirt road south of Laredo, where a large stash of cocaine had been hidden in a cement bunker. A photograph from that day shows Zapata, who had jumped into the hole ahead of his colleagues, holding up a bundle of white powder and grinning.

Zapata’s cases could last months; at the height of a probe, it wasn’t unusual for him to pull an 80-hour week. The pressure could be overwhelming, and he tried to keep the mood light around the office. “If you’re stressed out, just do a little picture, man,” he would say. Photoshopping the faces of colleagues onto the bodies of models and movie stars, he taped up the results over their desks. To unwind he bought a boat, which he took out fishing on Laguna Madre Bay whenever he could. He formed a competitive barbecue team with a few guys from the office, inviting a couple of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to join and christening the squad Fire and Ice. He maintained his college affinity for video games, playing epic sessions of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; they helped him with his work, he swore to Joyner, his girlfriend.

Still, by late 2010 the pace was beginning to wear him out. Sometimes he fantasized about leaving it all behind, retiring to a big ranch and raising a brood as a stay-at-home dad. Then the job in Mexico came up. Zapata was ready for a break. He signed up right away.

As his transfer date approached, Zapata started going for long runs on the looping, windswept roads by his condo and eating salad, eventually shedding 25 pounds. He told Joyner and his parents that he wanted to be strong and fit just in case but assured them that his life wouldn’t be in danger. He would be riding a desk at the embassy: American agents there provided intelligence, training, and equipment but were not supposed to participate in field operations. And although the drug war had ravaged much of the country, Mexico City had remained remarkably untouched. The U.S. embassy sat on Reforma Avenue, a treelined boulevard full of public art and ritzy hotels. Barricades surrounded the perimeter, and visitors had to pass through two levels of security to get in. “I’ll be working out of the embassy,” he told his mother. “I’ll be driving an armored vehicle. My friends have gone and they’ve come back.”

The night before Zapata left, the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, and he and Joyner went to a party at another agent’s house. As usual, he beelined for the kitchen and spent most of the night there. There was nothing he loved more than this. Looking back, friends remembered him as relaxed and cheerful that night, as if the stress of the grind in Laredo were falling away.

The next morning, Joyner drove him to the airport, and they sat down for one last meal together at an airport restaurant. Joyner picked at her eggs. She was less enthusiastic about his assignment than he was. There was the vague sense of danger, but mostly she wasn’t looking forward to their being apart for three months. Finally, Zapata stood up, wrapped his long arms around her one last time, and disappeared through the security gate.

Seven

Zapata spent the next few days meeting new colleagues at the embassy, going shopping, and checking out the bars in the capital city. On Sunday, February 13, he toured Teotihuacan, the ancient holy city of the Aztecs, climbing one of the pyramids and lingering at the top, stretching his arms toward the sky. Back at the hotel the following evening, he called Joyner. He hadn’t had much to do yet, he told her, and he was anxious to get started. But things were picking up—he was going on a mission in the morning.

That afternoon, Ricky Gonzalez, the agent from Laredo whom Zapata was replacing in Mexico City, had said that he wasn’t able to go to San Luis Potosí for a scheduled meeting with agents from the consulate in Monterrey. Zapata, as usual, volunteered. (Although ICE has refused to comment on the nature of Zapata’s assignment, several government sources familiar with the case told me they heard it was “some kind of wiretap”—a possible explanation for the equipment, widely rumored to be surveillance gear, that Zapata and Avila were dispatched to collect. One source believed that the target of the wiretap was the Zetas.) The next day, he and Avila set out early from Mexico City, hoping to beat the morning rush hour.

It was unclear how the agents first caught the attention of the cell that attacked them. Julian Zapata, the Zeta whom the Mexican police eventually apprehended, would later claim the ambush was a mistake. He and his men, he said, mistook Zapata and Avila for rivals in an armored SUV. Although landlocked San Luis Potosí was of little obvious import to the cartels, it had recently become a flashpoint as the struggle between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas had intensified and moved south. From 2009 to 2010, the number of recorded homicides in the state jumped 55 percent to 752.

The Zeta’s answer was a convenient one—better to call the first murder of an American agent in decades an accident. But there were reasons to believe he might have been telling the truth. An organized hit seemed unlikely; Jaime Zapata had newly arrived in Mexico and had volunteered for the mission on short notice. The Suburban had diplomatic plates, but the cartel informant I spoke to laughed off the possibility that the Zetas allegedly involved in the hit—unsophisticated recent recruits—would have known what to make of them. “These guys are hicks who didn’t go to school,” he said. “They’re from the hills, from the countryside. They don’t know what a diplomatic plate is.”

Accidentally or otherwise, the Zetas had kicked a hornet’s nest. Presidents Obama and Calderón both expressed outrage and promised that justice would be done. Mexico put up a $1 million reward for information and quickly began an investigation. Eight days later, they rounded up Julian Zapata and his five alleged accomplices. Zapata was quickly extradited to the United States.

There were officers on the American side who believed the arrest to be one of political expedience. “I don’t even know if he’s the triggerman,” one retired law-enforcement officer familiar with the case said of Julian Zapata. “But hey, we got somebody! Who cares! We can check that box.” At the press conference in Mexico City, local reporters were quick to note that one of the six men paraded before them had bruises on his face and seemed to have trouble walking, though El Piolín himself appeared to be unscathed. But authorities on both sides insisted they had the right men. The story might well have ended there but for one thing: The raids in Mexico had also yielded weapons. And at least two of them had come from Texas.

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Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

Eight

Hours after Jaime Zapata’s funeral on February 22, agents from every federal law-enforcement agency in the United States began knocking on doors across the country. Earlier dragnets in the drug war had been narrowly targeted, with the aim of rolling up a single cartel’s operations north of the border. Operation Fallen Hero was different. Feds and local police in all 50 states were instructed to pull every warrant they had for anyone with a connection to any cartel—the government was after not just the Zetas but the entire drug-trafficking industry. There was a “schoolyard mentality” to the raids, Carl Pike, the head of the DEA’s special operations division, told CBS News. “A bully comes up and pushes you, and if you don’t push back, you’re a victim. We’re pushing back.”

In the space of a week, 676 arrests were made across the country. In New Jersey, agents seized $1 million in cash. In Houston, authorities hauled in $750,000, 322 pounds of marijuana, and 28 pounds of cocaine. And in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, ATF agents paid a visit to the home of a man by the name of Otilio Osorio.

A stocky 22-year-old, Otilio was living with his elder brother Ranferi, a former Marine who had been discharged honorably in 2009 after tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. Shortly after leaving the service, Ranferi Osorio’s estranged wife later testified, he had gone into the business of buying and selling guns as a means of supporting his family.

From there it was a short path to lucrative dealings with Mexican criminals willing to pay top dollar for American guns. The practice of straw purchasing, in which a U.S. citizen with no criminal background makes the buy, is one of the principal means—if not the principal means—by which gangs like the Zetas arm themselves. No one knows how many guns cross the border illegally, but a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that over 87 percent of the firearms linked to violent crimes in Mexico and traced over the previous five years originated with U.S. dealers. A straw purchaser could be anyone. They are, by definition, the kind of people no one would be watching.

The Dallas office of the ATF first received reports that the Osorio brothers were buying weapons late in the summer of 2010, according to reporting by Hearst Newspapers, but that fact alone wasn’t enough to cause alarm or warrant a special investigation. The Osorio name turned up a second time on September 17, 2010, when a WASR rifle and a Draco pistol that had been seized in La Pryor, Texas, en route to the border, had been traced back to Ranferi. An ATF office in New Mexico had requested the trace, but the results were never sent to Dallas.

Otilio Osorio seemed unalarmed when the ATF showed up on his doorstep on February 24, and he invited the agents inside, according to later court testimony. Guns in various stages of disassembly were lying around the house in plain view. Osorio told the agents that he was a Draco specialist, a man who bought and fixed up weapons. After a brief conversation, the agents left Osorio to his work. Whatever the brothers were up to, it didn’t appear to be enough to justify an arrest.

That same day, the ATF requested trace results on three weapons that had been recovered in San Luis Potosí during Julian Zapata’s arrest. Mexican authorities had matched them to the attack on the Suburban through ballistics testing, but the serial numbers had been effaced, and the weapons were sent to a special ATF lab with the technology to recover the numbers. On February 25, the trace results came in: One of the weapons was a Draco, a Romanian AK-47 pistol that had been sold in October 2010 at a gun show in Fort Worth, Texas. The buyer’s name, according to the gun dealer’s records, was Otilio Osorio.


Three months earlier, on the morning of November 9, 2010, Otilio, Ranferi, and a next-door neighbor named Kelvin Morrison had stuffed a cache of semiautomatic assault rifles into duffel bags and driven to a Walmart off the interstate in Lancaster. It was early enough that the parking lot was nearly empty, save for a red truck—a battered old commercial wrecker, its cab held together with baling wire. The driver who emerged from the cab was a courier who had spent the previous day exchanging phone calls with the Osorios and buyers for the Zetas in Nuevo Laredo.

The brothers pulled up next to the truck and popped the hood on their red Ford Explorer. They connected jumper cables to the truck’s battery to make the exchange look innocuous. As they loaded the bags, the courier told them that the drive to Laredo would take about eight hours. “Let them know what time I left,” he said. “They’re expecting these things down there in a certain amount of time.”

“You be careful,” Ranferi told him. “I’ll see you in the next one.” The three Americans got back in the Explorer and drove away.

Unbeknownst to the dealers, federal agents had been watching the handoff. Once the Explorer had gone, agents from Dallas tailed the Osorio brothers while a team from Laredo followed the truck. Safely out of view of the Osorios, the truck pulled to the side of the road, and the agents jumped in back. The courier was actually an ATF informant, who had been wired with a pen camera throughout the transaction. His ruse yielded 40 weapons in total—each with a bright silver strip where the serial number used to be.

The Dallas team stayed with the Explorer for a couple of hours, waiting until the vehicle made a routine traffic violation to pull it over. Instead of arresting the Osorios and Morrison, however, the ATF agents simply took down their information and let them go. The agency declined to comment for this story, but Thomas Crowley, an ATF spokesman, told reporters in May that the stop was part of another criminal probe. “Taking them down and arresting them at that time,” he said, “would have possibly jeopardized that investigation.” An ATF agent named Hector Tarango would later testify that his office had merely been assisting the DEA that morning. Another DEA source told me that the sting was part of a DEA operation in Laredo; the ATF had agreed not to interfere. “This was not their case,” he said. “This was our case.”

In any event, the ATF agents initially failed to fill out the paperwork for the handoff at the Walmart. After the Draco used to kill Zapata was traced back to the Osorios, however, they finally did. Three days later, authorities returned to the Osorios’ house with an arrest warrant. There they seized rifles, grinders, a vice, and a can of black spray-paint—the makings of a smuggler’s workshop.

Nine

Zapata’s murder, as it happened, was not the only killing of a federal agent that would be tied to a botched gun bust. Two months before his death, a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry had been killed in a shootout with gunmen—believed to be Mexican bandits—in Peck Canyon, Arizona, near the Mexican border. The two semiautomatic rifles found at the crime scene were later traced to firearms dealers in Phoenix, and it emerged that the straw buyers who’d purchased them had been under surveillance by the ATF. They were targets of an operation called Fast and Furious—reportedly because the suspects liked to drag-race cars in the desert—and were known to be smuggling weapons across the border.

Several weeks after Terry’s death, a Phoenix ATF agent named John Dodson contacted Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with an explosive allegation. Dodson claimed that his superiors had deliberately allowed the Fast and Furious guns to “walk” across the border as part of an attempt to map out the smuggling network that armed the Sinaloa cartel. Instead, the weapons had simply gone missing in Mexico, eventually turning up in the hands of Terry’s killers.

The notion that the U.S. might have willingly armed Mexican cartels was obviously alarming, and as Dodson became more outspoken and the Justice Department refused to provide a satisfying explanation, Fast and Furious mushroomed into a full-blown scandal. Conservative media outlets covered it obsessively—and for the Republican lawmakers who had taken the reins of Congress’s investigative committees in January after four years out of power, it offered a golden opportunity to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire. Two weeks before Zapata’s murder, Grassley had written to Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the ATF, first demanding information about Fast and Furious, and then, in a follow-up letter, accusing the ATF of “retaliation against whistleblowers.” On February 28, 2011,  Attorney General Eric Holder finally asked Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz to investigate Fast and Furious.

It was in this politically charged atmosphere that the Justice Department announced the arrest of the Osorio brothers and Kelvin Morrison on March 1. As in the investigation of Terry’s murder, the central question was whether weapons that could have been intercepted by federal agents had ended up in Mexico rather than an evidence locker in Texas. Otilio Osorio had bought the pistol used to kill Zapata less than a month before handing off a shipment of guns to an emissary for the gang that had killed him. Had the Draco been in the next shipment he sent to Mexico?

The Justice Department’s official announcement of the arrest was vague on this score. It detailed the November sting operation in the Walmart parking lot, and acknowledged that one of the guns used in the assault on the ICE agents’ vehicle had been purchased in October by Otilio Osorio, but carefully avoided drawing any connection between the two. “We saw the press release, and the press release was very curious,” one of Grassley’s committee staffers told me. Three days later, the senator’s office sent the first of another series of letters to Melson—this time about the Zapata case. “How can we know that [the gun Osorio bought] did not make its way down to Mexico after the November investigation,” it read, “when the arrest of these three criminals might have prevented the gun from being trafficked and later used to murder Agent Zapata?”

In May, ICE invited the Zapata family to fly to Washington, D.C., to attend National Police Week, the annual ceremony for the families of fallen law-enforcement officers. At ICE headquarters, John Morton, the director, showed them around. A three-dimensional plaque honoring their son had been installed near the entrance to the building. Further inside was a second Zapata plaque made of crystal, and they stopped to place red roses at its base. On the third floor, they were met by the agency’s top brass, gathered in the newly dedicated Jaime Zapata conference room.

Beneath the formalities, however, was an unspoken tension. Back in Texas, the Zapatas had hired a pair of attorneys, Benigno Martinez and Raymond Thomas, who had traveled with them to Washington. At first the family had simply wanted help closing their son’s estate as they struggled to put their lives back together. Amid “the hype,” as Mary described it, of the funeral, it seemed as if the entire federal government were there to help them. Then the agents left their living room, the SUVs with their tinted windows pulled out of the driveway, and the Zapatas were alone. Mary felt like she was sinking into the ground. She wasn’t really sleeping anymore, only two or three hours a night at most. One night after another she would sit up in bed, turn on her laptop, and type “Jaime Zapata ICE agent” into the search engine.

It was during one of her midnight searches that Mary first came across the Osorio brothers and the details that had gradually emerged about their story. In March 2011, Grassley’s investigators turned up mentions of Ranferi Osorio and Kelvin Morrison in ATF records from September 2010—suggesting that, contrary to the language of the Justice Department press release about their arrest, the agency had reason to suspect the Osorios were trafficking weapons long before the gun that killed Zapata was purchased. On March 3, an editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News demanding that the ATF “provide a full accounting” of gun walking “that may well have contributed to two American law enforcement deaths.” Mary wanted answers, too. She had seen the coverage of the Fast and Furious saga on TV and wondered, What about my son? Did something like that happen to my son?

Before the Zapatas left for Washington, Martinez and Thomas had set up meetings with Grassley and Representative Darrel Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Congress’s main investigative panel. “By May,” Thomas told me, “we had questions.” The Zapatas had not been allowed to view the report on their son’s autopsy or even been told the number of times he was shot. They still did not know why he had been sent to San Luis Potosí in the first place. In fact, they knew virtually nothing about the final moments of his life—not officially, anyway. The FBI was investigating the murder but had not shared its findings. With few facts to grab onto amid the swirl of rumor and conjecture, the Zapatas found themselves entertaining even the most absurd speculations. “Did Victor kill him? I just don’t know,” Mary later told me. There was no evidence to suggest he had, but still, “Your mind goes crazy.”

When the family and their attorneys met Issa in his office, the California Republican vowed to find out if there was any connection between Zapata’s death and a gun-walking program like Fast and Furious, and suggested that the attorneys file requests for the government records of the case through the Freedom of Information Act. A few weeks later, Martinez and Thomas mailed a letter to the FBI, the U.S. attorney in south Texas, and three ICE officials. “There are so many different stories regarding what happened that day as well as the different factors that may have contributed to Jaime’s death,” it read. The Zapatas “need your help to find closure.” A few weeks later, the first responses began to arrive. One after another, the requests were denied.

There was, of course, a witness. Victor Avila and his family had also been invited to Washington for National Police Week. The Zapatas had not seen him since he had placed the flower on their son’s coffin in Brownsville, and their attorneys had been trying to contact him without success. “There was no communication,” says Thomas. Though he was with the Zapatas during the tour of the memorials at ICE headquarters, within earshot of all the agency higher-ups there was never a chance for them to talk candidly.

Then, one afternoon in late November, the phone rang at Thomas’s desk in McAllen, Texas. “I nearly fell off my chair,” he told me. The caller was Magdalena Villalobos, a personal-injury lawyer in Fort Worth. She was also Avila’s twin sister, and she wanted to talk.

Ten

From the moment the helicopter whisked him away from the scene of the attack, with Zapata’s body laid out beside him, Avila had been a wreck. At the hospital in San Luis Potosí, surrounded by medical personnel and officers he had never met, he was petrified, certain that at any moment the killers would find him there. He had no idea why they had come for him and Zapata on the highway. But the cartels had eyes and ears in so many government institutions that surely tracking him to the local hospital would be easy.

He had been wary of the mission from the start. Zapata had jumped eagerly at the assignment, but Avila, with his greater depth of experience on the embassy detail, wondered why they were being sent. According to his account of events later related in court filings, Avila confronted his and Zapata’s supervisor in Mexico City, Juan Gelista, with his concerns. The U.S. embassy had a courier service for exactly this kind of work, he pointed out—why couldn’t the equipment simply be flown via diplomatic pouch?

The planned ground route, which crossed the disputed border between Zeta and Gulf cartel territory, struck Avila as too dangerous to be worth the unnecessary risk. Less than a month before, embassy employees had received a memo detailing the hazards posed by the cartels in the area. An advisory from the consulate in Monterrey seven months earlier had warned that the “location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted” throughout northern Mexico and specifically advised against traveling in SUVs, the type of vehicles favored by carjackers. Even San Luis Potosí, six hours to the south, seemed to be getting worse; the day before, authorities there had responded to reports of a firefight on Highway 57 and arrived on the scene to find a still-burning car. An ICE official in Monterrey had warned Avila about an uptick in cartel activity along the exact stretch of highway he and Zapata would be traveling.

According to Avila’s account, Gelista took his concerns seriously enough to break into a meeting between ICE’s attaché in Mexico City and his deputy, Anthony Salisbury, to discuss them. Salisbury seemed irritated at the interruption. “I am not aware of any security issue,” he told Gelista, according to Avila. “This is the first I hear of it.” The mission went ahead as planned.

After the attack, Avila was sent to Houston for medical treatment. From there his family was moved from place to place, never returning to Mexico City. By the fall of 2011, he had begun to recover from his physical injuries, but the trauma of the attack had left him unable to return to work. Finally, he asked Villalobos if she would represent him. “Things began to simmer down a little bit, and he began to digest what happened,” she told me. He thought the mission had been reckless; the memory of it “was eating at him and eating at him.” After Thanksgiving, Villalobos invited Thomas and Martinez to meet her at her office in Fort Worth, and they started planning their strategy.

If anything, the thicket of questions surrounding the incident was growing denser. On January 30, 2012, federal prosecutors in Houston sentenced a man named Manuel Barba, who, like the Osorios, had been caught trafficking guns to the Zetas, including a Century Arms 7.62 semiautomatic rifle that had been in the possession of Zapata’s alleged killers when they were captured in San Luis Potosí. Barba, a pudgy meth dealer, had been running a weapons-smuggling operation out of his mother’s kitchen in Houston; the rifle in question had been bought by an Iraq War veteran named Robert Riendfliesh at a pawn shop in nearby Beaumont and stripped of its serial number by Barba, then shipped along with nine other guns to the Zetas. Like the Osorios, Barba had been a fixture in recent ATF gunrunning probes: Witnesses kept identifying him as a source of weapons. Yet several months had passed before Barba, already awaiting trial on drug-distribution charges, was finally indicted for trafficking firearms. A warrant had been issued for his arrest the day before Zapata’s murder.

Barba’s guilty plea was never publicly announced, and it was weeks before reporters found out about it. Mary Zapata had only learned of it by happenstance, one night while she was awake in bed with her laptop, searching online for information about her son. That the family had not been informed through official channels felt like an affront. The Zapatas’ attorneys requested that the family have the opportunity to testify during sentencing hearings for Barba but were denied on the grounds that the link between the case and Zapata’s death was too distant. This perceived exclusion was the final straw. Not long after, the family agreed that Martinez, Thomas, and Villalobos should begin drafting a lawsuit.

Eleven

On a warm afternoon in April, I drove to Beaumont to visit the pawn shop where one of Barba’s smuggled guns had been bought nearly two years earlier. JJ’s was a windowless box in a seedy strip on the edge of town. The interior was dark, with a line of rifles on the back wall. Behind the register was a man who looked to be in his sixties, wearing a blue JJ’s shirt, a pair of shorts, and white socks pulled up to his calves. It was clear I didn’t belong there, and there wasn’t much point in being coy, so I introduced myself and asked if I could ask him a few questions about the rifle from JJ’s that had been found in the possession of a federal agent’s alleged killers.

The man looked me up and down without moving his head, then put his feet up on the counter. “No, thanks,” he said. Another employee, a dark-eyed giant, placed his hands on a glass case filled with weapons. Noticing some faded Donna Summer and Wham! cassettes by the register, I made an awkward stab at small talk: “Don’t sell a lot of those, huh?” The seconds ticked excruciatingly by. Finally, the man in shorts stood up. He wore an enormous brass belt buckle and, on his left hand, a diamond-encrusted ring. “There’s nothing that beats an intelligent conversation between two knowledgeable people on a subject,” he said. And with that, he showed me the door.

I wasn’t sure what even a less hostile gun dealer in JJ’s position would have said. On the first anniversary of Zapata’s death, a local TV station in Dallas had interviewed Jim Terrell, the dealer who had sold Otilio Osorio the Draco used in the murder. “That breaks my heart,” Terrell—a former law-enforcement officer himself—said. But he was quick to point out that “we always strive to go above and beyond in our screening process” and that he scrupulously documented his gun sales.

Which, in a way, was the point. The longer I looked into the case, the more it seemed like even the most damning of the scenarios that might have led to Zapata’s death—in which the ATF willingly let guns end up in the hands of the Zetas—was overshadowed by the sense that Zapata’s death, or one like it, was simply waiting to happen. The larger failures of the governments on both sides of the border—of the U.S. to curtail the easy access to high-powered weapons, of Mexico to stamp out the corruption that had allowed the cartels to rule much of the country with impunity—were the culprits that no one wanted to blame. The gun dealers surely knew this much: If it hadn’t been their weapons, it would’ve been one of the thousands of others that slip across the border every year. If it hadn’t been Jaime Zapata, it almost certainly would have been someone else.

The following month, I visited the ICE headquarters in Laredo. In the hallway on the second floor, I passed a bronze bust of Zapata, paid for by the Friends of Jaime Zapata, a local charity. It had been unveiled in a ceremony the day before, on what would have been Zapata’s 34th birthday. Mary and Amador Zapata had dutifully attended, even though they had recently appeared on CNN questioning the government’s silence. They looked tired and left quickly after the ceremony. The next day they were returning to Washington for another set of memorials; it was National Police Week again.

Jerry Robinette, the special agent in charge of the office, had given me clearance to talk to a handful of Zapata’s colleagues, though the attack itself would be off-limits. In any case, he told me, there was only “a small circle” who really knew what happened. I was directed to a tiny room with a two-way mirror, where I waited for the 11 people who had signed up to talk to me. A barrel-chested ex-Marine with an anchor tattooed on his biceps walked in and sat down. Javier—like most of the agents—asked me to use his first name only. Between sips from an energy drink, he told me about his time working with Zapata, expounding enthusiastically on Zapata’s prankster reputation and barbecuing skills. But when I asked why he thought Zapata’s family had had to struggle to get answers, he just shrugged.

Another agent walked in, the man who had hosted the Super Bowl party that Zapata had attended the night before he left for Mexico. The two had been very close, Rick said. They had taken trips to the beach; they went fishing together all the time. Rick had even gone to Mexico after Zapata’s death to work at the embassy. But before I could get to the obvious question, he cut me off. “I didn’t learn anything,” he insisted.

That seemed unlikely, and I said so. “You’re a professional investigator,” I said.

“I really don’t know what happened,” he said, getting up to leave.

I was beginning to feel like a visiting therapist, someone the cops were ordered to talk to whether they wanted to or not. The clipped, closely circumscribed answers I was getting were surely, at least in part, a matter of self-interest—the agents’ boss, after all, had instructed them not to tell me much. But there was a genuinely speculative edge to their responses. It occurred to me that Zapata’s own colleagues might not have been part of the small circle, either.

In June, Zapata’s parents’ lawyers held a press conference in Brownsville to announce that they were suing the federal government for $60 million over the wrongful death of their son. Avila had joined them in the suit and filed a separate claim for $12 million. “Jaime was murdered by narco-traffickers,” the claim read. “But the reckless acts and omissions by ICE, ATF and FBI created the opportunity for his death to occur.” A government operation, the lawsuit alleged, was “responsible for allowing … weapons to walk into the hands of known killers.”

In the weeks I spent talking to them, the Zapatas seemed bewildered by what had happened to them, paralyzed by their grief and ill-equipped to navigate the suddenly complex world they inhabited. “I’m just a nobody,” Mary said at one point, telling me that she worried she wasn’t “even educated enough to demand or question or get to the bottom of this.” At the same time, I could see their story becoming more polished, their delivery more poised. They were surrounded by advocates now: the attorneys trying to extract a small fortune from the government, the congressional investigators looking for ammunition for their battles with the Obama administration, even a public relations firm hired by their attorneys to drum up interest in the lawsuit in the media. It was hard to say whether it was getting them any closer to the one thing they cared about. “I don’t know,” Mary told me in September, “if I will ever know what really happened.”

I thought back to the afternoon I had spent with the Zapatas in their sunlight-flooded living room. As they were talking, I began to notice the photographs on the walls. Above the couch was a picture of Jaime, in a suit and tie, standing beside an American flag—the official portrait that had appeared in the stories about his death. Then I noticed a second copy of the same picture, then another and another. I counted seven in all. Mary plucked a photo album from the table and started thumbing through it. “That’s Jaimito. That’s Jaime. This is Jaime in the tractor. That’s Jaime. Jaime and Santa Claus. That’s him. He was very tall, long legs,” she said. She lingered on a photograph of him on his new boat, holding up a big catch and smiling. “There’s a lot of pictures of Jaime and fish.”

She showed me a china cabinet filled with Jaime Zapata commemorative coins and buttons, the cowboy boots he’d had engraved with his initials. Finally, she pointed to a cast-iron plaque above the dining room table that was engraved with Jaime’s name and badge number and a biblical verse, Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The plaque was so heavy, Mary told me, that it required four men to lift. “It’s beautiful,” she said, gazing up at it. “It’s perfect.”