WASHINGTON — Two drug cartel hit men have been convicted of gunning down a U.S. immigration agent and wounding his partner in a roadside ambush in Mexico in 2011.
Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, 35, known as “Safado,” and Jesus Ivan Quezada Piña, 29, known as “Loco,” were members of Los Zetas cartel hit squads and had been on a mission to steal cars the day of the shooting, prosecutors said.
On Feb. 15, 2011, the two men were among a group that spotted an armored Chevrolet Suburban bearing diplomatic plates driven by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila.
The agents were on their way to Mexico City on official business, when the cartel members opened fire with AK-47s and AR-15s on a busy highway south of San Luis Potosi. Zapata, 32, was fatally shot, and Avila was wounded. Investigators later found approximately 90 shell casings at the scene, according to the trial evidence.
Five other cartel members have already pleaded guilty to murder and conspiracy charges in the shooting. All are awaiting sentencing and face up to life in prison.
A jury found Sota and Piña guilty on counts of murder, attempted murder and firearms charges. The judge scheduled a hearing for Aug. 29 to select a sentencing date in order to accommodate for when Avila and Zapata’s family would be able to attend. The hit men also face up to life in prison.
The gang members have said they believed the vehicle was being driven by members of a rival cartel, apparently not noticing the diplomatic plates. The shooting has proven to be exceedingly damaging to the Los Zetas cartel, leading to the arrest of over 100 of its top bosses.
Zapata’s family has filed a wrongful death suit against the U.S., alleging that ICE sent the men into Mexico with inadequate security, and that some of the weapons used in the shooting were trafficked by suspects under ATF surveillance, but who had not been arrested as part of the controversial “Operation Fast & Furious.”