By Spencer Hsu
The call shattered the calm at the switchboard of the US 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 2pm local time, February. 15, 2011, and Avila's partner, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Jaime Zapata, lay dying in the driver's seat of their armoured, State Department-issued SUV.
The blue Chevy Suburban was under attack from Los Zetas drug cartel hit men.
"Jaime! Look at me, stay awake. Please don't die," Avila pleaded in vain.
The death of Zapata, the first US 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 agonising details emerging from Avila, the agent who survived, in his first public account.
The shooting of Zapata, 32, occurred 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 US sanctions and aid that helped speed the downfall of Los Zetas, once the country's most sophisticated and violent drug organisation.
Six years later, the trial for the last of his accused killers, which could go to a jury tomorrow, 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 US-Mexico security partnership.
The two now at the defence table are Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, known as "Safado," 35, and Jesus Ivan Quezada Piña, known as "Loco," 29.
They are the last of a set of nine men connected to the ambush identified by federal prosecutors.
Five others were extradited and pleaded guilty earlier in the United States with assistance from Mexican authorities, 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 US prisons when they are sentenced.
Robert Feitel, Garcia Sota's court-appointed lawyer, told jurors that Mexican federal police never asked Avila - who 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 Amato.
A 12-person jury is expected to receive the case this week before US District Judge Royce Lamberth.
The path to trial began within days of the ambush.
On February 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.
US 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 highways, about 320km north of Mexico City.
One of those captured, Julian Zapata Espinoza, 37, called "El Piolin," or "Tweety Bird," confessed in Washington in 2013 to leading two, 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 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 to box in the Ice agents and force them off the road.
Espinoza said he did not recognise the Chevy Suburban's diplomatic plates, or understand Avila's shouts that they were with the US Embassy and internationally protected diplomats.
What happened when the agents' US$160,000 armoured 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 US Bureau of Diplomatic Security worldwide.
When Espinoza yanked on the handle, the heavy driver's side door 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 surrounded at gunpoint, confused and perhaps fumbling to relock the doors, Avila testified, the bulletproof window near him somehow lowered 6cm.
"They stuck in two barrels, two guns, an AR-15 rifle and a hand gun, right here," Avila told the jury, holding one hand in front of his head and the other centimetres from his right temple. The attackers kept telling the agents to open the door, he said. "At that moment, they opened fire."
I could see it leave a mark in his chest. Jaime said, 'I'm hit. I'm shot.'
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 hit 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 realised what he was hearing. "Gunfire hitting the armoured vehicle. I realise 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 armoured exterior.
Only then, Avila told a hushed courtroom, did the shooters leave.