The call shattered the calm at the switchboard of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
“This is Victor Avila from ICE! We are shot! We are shot!” a man screamed. “We are at a highway in Mexico; we’ve been shot and attacked on the highway!”
It was shortly after 2 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2011, and Avila’s partner, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Jaime J. Zapata, lay dying in the driver’s seat of their armored, State Department-issued SUV.
The blue Chevrolet Suburban was under attack by the Los Zetas drug cartel’s hit men.
“Jaime! Look at me, stay awake. Please don’t die,” Avila pleaded in vain.
The death of Zapata, the first U.S. law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Mexico since 1985, drew widespread attention at the time. But only now, in a federal courtroom in Washington, are the agonizing details emerging from Avila, the agent who survived, in his first public account.
The shooting of Zapata, 32, happened as deaths tied to drug violence in Mexico reached an all-time peak and marked a watershed in Mexico’s war against the cartels, contributing to increased U.S. sanctions and aid that helped speed the downfall of Los Zetas, once the country’s most sophisticated and violent drug organization.
Six years later, the trial of the last of his accused killers, which could go to a jury Wednesday, comes as cartel-related homicides are surging again, putting pressure on Mexican leaders to reduce the violence at a time when extraditions are emerging as a test of the U.S.-Mexico security partnership.
They are the last of a set of nine men connected to the ambush identified by federal prosecutors.
With assistance from Mexican authorities, five others were extradited and pleaded guilty earlier in the United States, including one who was not present as two carloads of attackers rolled down that highway but was captured later with the weapons. Two others died in Mexico.
Garcia Sota and Quezada Piña have pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and firearms counts after being extradited to the United States in 2015 and 2016.
Their lawyers argue that no physical evidence ties them to the shooting and that they are being linked only by the sometimes conflicting accusations of former squadmates who pleaded guilty and are cooperating to avoid life without parole in U.S. prisons when they are sentenced.
Robert A. Feitel, Garcia Sota’s court-appointed attorney, told jurors that Mexican federal police never asked Avila — whom Mexican police have said was in shock and in no condition to talk — to describe who or what vehicles attacked him, leaving the case to hinge on the word of Zeta against Zeta.
“They have every reason in the world — and every reason in their lives — to lie,” Feitel said.
The two men on trial were “expendable” and given up “to protect someone else” higher in the cartel, said Quezada Piña’s lawyer, Elita C. Amato.
The path to trial began within days of the ambush.
On Feb. 23, 2011, Mexican forces raided a home in San Luis Potosi in the north-central part of the country, capturing six men and six weapons in arrests announced by Mexico’s president.
U.S. law enforcement experts matched three of the recovered military-style, AK-47 and AR-15 semiautomatic rifles to some of the 90 shell casings and bullet fragments recovered from the scene on Federal Highway 57, one of Mexico’s busiest roads, about 200 miles north of Mexico City.
One of those captured, Julian Zapata Espinoza, 37, called “El Piolin,” or “Tweety Bird,” confessed in the District in 2013 to leading a pair of four-man hit squads.
In his plea and again on the witness stand, he testified that Zapata was the victim of a botched carjacking and that his men wanted the SUV, not the agents.
He pointed out two defendants, saying that they were part of the hit squads.
“He has a red tie and right now he’s fat,” he told jurors through an interpreter, identifying Garcia Sota as the second squad commander who sat at a table next to Quezada Piña.
Over the two-week trial, testimony in Spanish and English has traced a litany of errors, mishaps and coincidences that day.
On the stand, Espinoza cited a standing Zetas order to steal vehicles to replace ones lost in a barbaric war with a rival cartel. He was trying do just that, he testified, when he ordered his and Garcia Sota’s team, in a Dodge Ram truck and a GMC Yukon SUV, to box in the ICE agents and force them off the road.
Espinoza said he did not recognize the Chevy Suburban’s diplomatic plates or understand Avila’s shouts that they were with the U.S. Embassy and were internationally protected diplomats.
What happened when the agents’ $160,000 armored Suburban was brought to a halt — blocked by the hit squads — was stunning.
The SUV was built to withstand high-velocity gunfire, grenades and land mines. Yet it also came with a consumer convenience: When put in park, its doors unlocked automatically, a flaw previously unaddressed by the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security worldwide.
When Espinoza yanked the handle, the heavy door on the driver’s side creaked open.
“I think we were all surprised,” the surviving agent, Avila, testified as he spoke publicly for the first time about the assault.
The shock all around gave Zapata time to pull shut his door. But Zapata was surrounded at gunpoint, confused and perhaps fumbling to relock the doors, Avila testified; the bulletproof window near him somehow lowered two inches.
“They stuck in two barrels, two guns, an AR-15 rifle and a handgun, right here,” Avila told the jury, holding one hand in front of his head and the other inches from his right temple. The attackers kept telling the agents to open the door, he said. “At that moment, they opened fire.”
The bullets struck Zapata immediately.
“I could see it leave a mark in his chest. Jaime said, ‘I’m hit. I’m shot,’ ” Avila testified.
Six bullets pierced Zapata, including one that cut the femoral artery of his left leg. Avila, crouching, was shot in the thigh and ankle and grazed by two other bullets.
“I got my left hand on the barrel of the handgun, trying to push it out [the window.] It burned my hand,” Avila said. “I remember the smell of the gunpowder. ”
Avila was able to raise the window and call the embassy. By chance, Avila’s wife was working there that day as a contractor handling background interviews.
“Victor’s wife had come out of her office, and she heard it,” testified Special Agent Jason Kephart, who answered the call and made out Avila’s words through what he thought was static.
Then, Kephart said, he realized what he was hearing: “Gunfire hitting the armored vehicle. I realize they’re in their car. They’re trapped.”
“I need you to drive. I need you to move him,” Kephart said he told Avila, who answered, “I can’t. He’s too slippery. I can’t move him.”
Kephart said Avila went on: “I can’t find the place to put pressure. . . . He’s dying.”
Zapata was still in the driver’s seat. Avila pushed Zapata’s leg down on the accelerator, escaping the snare of the attackers by crashing through a truck blocking them from the front, Avila testified.
The agents’ Suburban bounded across lanes and stalled in a median.
The cartel made one more pass, spraying the windshield but not piercing the armored exterior.
Only then, Avila told a hushed courtroom, did the shooters leave.
While they wait for the last of the criminal verdicts, the agents’ families also have gone to civil court.
They have been rebuffed by a federal judge in Texas over their suit seeking $75 million in damages from the government.
The judge said that the families did not have enough evidence — and events did not rise to the extreme levels needed — to overcome the government’s immunity.
But the judge also said that the family could persist in court trying to seek more information in the face of what they deem stonewalling.
The families have asked why the agents were sent on a day’s notice, without an escort, up a notorious highway where gangs were known to roam, in a Suburban whose doors automatically unlocked, to retrieve “sensitive electronic equipment” from other ICE agents that could have been moved in other ways.
“The Zapata and Avila families have made many sacrifices in the service of this country,” U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, of Brownsville, Tex., wrote in July 2015. “The Zapatas still do not know the full story regarding how and why their son died, nor does Agent Avila have the full story about what led to his injuries.”
Congress has also pressed for answers during inquiries into the botched “Fast and Furious” anti-gun smuggling operation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in which the agency lost track of hundreds of firearms it was supposed to be monitoring after allowing straw buyers to traffic them into Mexico.
In March, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that two of the weapons used in Zapata’s killing were trafficked by suspects whom ATF in Dallas had under surveillance but hadn’t arrested.
As the criminal trial moves toward a close for the last of the suspects brought to the United States, some former U.S. officials hope it will not be the last major prosecution of Zetas.
Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as Z-40 and the reported leader of Los Zetas, has been suspected in the ambush of the ICE agents and other Americans, and is under indictment in the District, New York City and Texas.
Michael S. Vigil, former chief of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the trial could boost pressure to extradite the reputed boss, who was captured in 2013 and is held in Mexico.
“Jaime loved his job. He loved investigations,” his mother, Mary Zapata, told the jury.
At 66, she still lives in Brownsville, where Jaime was born and raised.
Two more of her sons also work for the Department of Homeland Security, one as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and the other as an ICE contractor.
Jaime was nine days into a temporary embassy assignment for which the ambitious young agent had volunteered, his mother testified.
And on the day they last spoke, he reassured her: “He said he would be traveling in an armored vehicle, so he would be safe.”