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Mexican drug cartel commander pleads guilty in 2011 ambush

MexicoJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeOrganized CrimeLos Zetas Cartel

WASHINGTON — A top Mexican drug cartel commander pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court  in the 2011 ambush attack south of the border that left one American agent dead and a second injured, and three other defendants also admitted their roles in the shootings that sharply strained U.S.-Mexico relations and has prosecutors still hunting for more suspects.

The developments in federal court in Washington also provided new details about the ambush, showing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were traveling near San Luis Potosi, Mexico, when a Los Zetas Cartel convoy forced them off the road and two “armed hit squads” surrounded their vehicle and demanded they step out.

When the agents refused and identified themselves as American diplomats from the U.S.  Embassy, the assailants “fired weapons near and into the vehicle, striking both agents,” court records show. The cartel members “continued to fire at the vehicle as the agents attempted to escape by driving away.”

Zapata died at the scene. Avila was seriously injured.

Pleading guilty was Julian Zapata Espinoza, also known as “El Piolin,” 32,  and described as a hit squad commander for the Zetas, a heavily armed Mexican narco-trafficking cartel with deep drug and smuggling routes north into the United States.  Zapata Espinoza, like the other three defendants, now faces life in prison with no parole.

But Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, said others  wanted in the ambush are believed to be hiding in Mexico.

“Our work in this critical case will continue until all of those who participated are held accountable,” he said.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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