Criminal JusticeFederalImmigration & BorderIssuesViolence Outside the U.S. Against Federal Agents, Employees Can Be Prosecuted, New Law Clarifies

President Biden excluded from the signing ceremony retired Special Agent Victor Avila and the family of the late Special Agent Jaime Zapata.
November 24, 2021
President Biden signed a new law last week sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), with a bipartisan group of cosponsors that included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), that aims to clarify that violence against federal agents and employees can be prosecuted even if it is committed outside of the United States.

The new law is called the Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila Federal Officers and Employees Protection Act. It explicitly covers certain crimes against federal agents, employees, and their family members, such as murder, attempted murder, assault, and threats, according to a summary provided by the United States Congress.

On February 11, 2011, officials in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), sent Special Agents Victor Avila and Jaime Zapata on an assignment to retrieve equipment from Mexico City. While they were on the road, the Los Zetas cartel attacked them in their armored vehicle, murdered Zapata, and seriously injured Avila.

In a letter to former President Trump on April 22, 2020, U.S. Special Counsel Henry Kerner described “managerial complacency” by the individuals who had sent Zapata and Avila on the assignment.  

Though in 2017 a jury in Washington, D.C. convicted the criminals responsible for murdering Zapata and injuring Avila, the federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit overturned the convictions for murder and attempted murder on a technicality in early 2020.

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In a statement to The Texan on Tuesday, Avila described his and the Zapata family’s reaction to the ruling last year.

“The Zapata family and I were devastated when we learned that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had vacated the murder conviction. I contacted my Senator, Congressman and FLEOA (Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association) almost two years ago to try to make this right,” Avila said.

Though the perpetrators remained imprisoned on other charges related to the attack, the ruling revealed a loophole in American law.

The law Biden just signed, S. 921, states that multiple appeals courts have usually read the statutes in question “to apply extraterritorially to protect officers and employees of the United States while the officers and employees are serving abroad.”

However, the new law has added the language to the Crimes and Criminal Procedure portion of the federal code to set that in stone.

Avila lauded S. 921 as an important step to protect federal agents and workers abroad but mentioned that President Biden excluded him and the Zapata family from the signing ceremony.

“This law sends a strong message that the United States will bring anyone to justice that harms or attempts to harm our agents and employees serving abroad to protect our homeland,” Avila told The Texan

“The Zapata family and I are disappointed and hurt that the Biden administration did not invite us to be part of the signing ceremony of this very important law.”

Cornyn put out a statement last week pointing to the commitment of federal officials abroad.

“No matter where federal law enforcement officers are called to serve, they know that their oath to protect our nation extends beyond American soil,” Cornyn said.

“This new law will ensure federal officers and employees serving internationally have the protection of the laws they have been sworn to defend by closing a loophole which will deliver justice and honor their courageous service.”

Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28) and Michael McCaul (R-TX-10) also worked with Cornyn on the legislation and made statements in support of the law.


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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."