U.S. agent under attack in Mexico called for help
Friday, February 18, 2011; 7:38 PM
MEXICO CITY - As his fellow officer was dying in the car seat beside him after gunmen ambushed their vehicle earlier this week, U.S. special agent Victor Avila, wounded himself, telephoned the U.S. embassy here to shout that they were under attack.
New details emerged Friday from U.S. officials on the daylight assault Tuesday against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Avila and ICE special agent Jaime Zapata were traveling in an armored Chevrolet Suburban with diplomatic license plates on a popular four-lane highway four hours north of Mexico City. They were returning from a meeting with fellow agents from Monterrey, who met them at a halfway point near San Luis Potosi to exchange technical equipment.
According to U.S. officials who requested their names not be used because of security protocols, Zapata and Avila were pursued on the highway by armed gunmen in civilian clothes riding in several vehicles.
The agents were forced to the side of the road and, when their passenger-side window briefly opened, the assailants fired several rounds into their vehicle, killing Zapata, who was driving, and wounding Avila in the leg.
The agents got the window closed again, and Avila called the security detail at the U.S. Embassy. The assailants opened fire at the vehicle, but could not penetrate the bulletproof armor and glass. Investigators counted more than 80 shell cases around their SUV.
U.S. Embassy officials said that neither Avila or Zapata was armed, and so did not return fire. The Mexican government forbids U.S. federal agents from carrying weapons, exempting only officials involved in protective services.
At a memorial service for Zapata on Friday, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual spoke of Avila's "steadfastness and courage" as he called in the attack after gunmen aimed at his head through the window.
The armored vehicle and Avila's phone call saved his life. Mexican federal police quickly arrived at the scene, followed by a helicopter that flew Avila to a hospital. He was later flown to Ben Taub Hospital in Houston and is now recovering at home. Zapata's body was returned to his family in Texas.
At the memorial service, held at the U.S. embassy and attended by several hundred government employees and guests, ICE Assistant Director Lou Alvarez called Zapata "a great agent," who liked to hunt and fish and barbecue. He vowed that Zapata's death would not be forgotten as U.S. and Mexican authorities seek his killers.
Investigators are searching for both a motive and the identity of the assailants, who escaped. It is unclear whether the agents were followed or targeted, or whether they were victims of a criminal gang that wanted to steal the car or rob them. Several reports have suggested the Zetas drug cartel was responsible, but U.S. law enforcement officials warned that it was too early in the investigation to pinpoint a culprit.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said earlier that the agents identified themselves as American diplomats before they were shot.
"This was an intentional ambush against two United States federal agents, which I view as an attack against the United States," McCaul said.