US: 2 Mexican nationals convicted in federal agent's killing

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal jury on Thursday convicted two members of a violent Mexican drug cartel in the 2011 ambush slaying of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, U.S. authorities said.

Five other Mexicans in the Los Zetas cartel pleaded guilty earlier to federal charges in the shooting death of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the wounding of another agent in central Mexico during a roadside attack on their car by gunmen in San Luis Potosi, a central Mexican state. All seven were extradited to the U.S. on federal charges.

"With today's guilty verdicts, a total of seven members of the violent Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, have now been brought to justice for the ruthless ambush that took the life of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and that injured and could have killed ICE Special Agent Victor Avila," U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia said in a statement.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Washington found 36-year-old Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota and 29-year-old Jesus Ivan Quezada Pina guilty of murder and attempted murder of a federal officer and a related firearms offense, the statement added. It said 22 witnesses, including Avila, the special agent who survived the attack on Feb. 15, 2011, testified at the trial that began July 10.

No sentencing date was immediately announced, and the statement said both men face mandatory life sentences for the murder conviction. Their next status hearing is scheduled Aug. 29.

"Drug cartels bring death and destruction across our Southern border and sell drugs that take lives all across America," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "Today's conviction of two cartel members in the horrific murder of ICE agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico is the next step in the Department of Justice's ongoing efforts to dismantle the cartels and bring them to justice."

Sessions said the prosecutions in the case bore witness to the "enormous resources devoted to this investigation" both by law enforcement agents in the United States and in Mexico.

Phillips' statement said prosecutors presented evidence at trial that Garcia Sota and Quezada Pina were members of two Los Zetas hit squads and were on a mission the day of Zapata's killing to steal vehicles for the cartel's operations. It said they were among a group of cartel members who targeted an armored Chevrolet Suburban bearing diplomatic plates and driven by the special agents on a busy highway south of the city of San Luis Potosi.

Cartel members fired at the agents' vehicle with semi-automatic assault weapons, including assault rifles, as well as handguns. Zapata, 32, was fatally shot and Avila, then 38, was wounded. According to trial evidence, investigators later found about 90 shell casings at the scene.

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