By William Booth
Saturday, February 19, 2011; A07
MEXICO CITY - As his fellow officer was dying in the seat beside him after gunmen ambushed their vehicle 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 Tuesday's daylight assault against two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Avila and 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 in Monterrey, who had met them at a halfway point near San Luis Potosi to exchange technical equipment.
According to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security protocols, Zapata and Avila were pursued 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, fatally shooting 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 gunmen opened fire at the vehicle again but could not penetrate its bulletproof armor and glass. Investigators counted more than 80 shell casings near the SUV.
U.S. Embassy officials said neither Avila nor Zapata was armed and so did not return fire. The Mexican government forbids U.S. federal agents to carry 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 the gunmen aimed at his head through the window.
The armored vehicle and Avila's phone call saved his life. Mexican federal police quickly arrived, followed by a helicopter that flew Avila to a hospital. He was later flown to Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston and is now recovering at home. Zapata's body was returned to his family in Texas.
At the memorial service, ICE Assistant Director Lou Alvarez called Zapata "a great agent." 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 that 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.