By Jared Taylor
BROWNSVILLE, Texas, June 29 (Reuters) - The mother of a U.S. federal agent shot to death in Mexico last year said Friday she believes the weapon used to kill her son came from a botched federal gun-running operation that put firearms into the hands of Mexican drug cartels - a charge denied by the government.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Jaime Zapata, who was raised in Brownsville, was shot to death while traveling in a vehicle in Mexico in February 2011 in an attack that wounded his colleague, agent Victor Avila.
The agents were driving in an armored vehicle on a highway to Mexico City from San Luis Potosi when they were ambushed in broad daylight by suspected drug gang members. Two guns used in the attack were later recovered and traced back to Texas.
Speaking at a news conference in Brownsville on Friday, Zapata's mother, Mary, said she believed the weapons were allowed to slip into Mexico as part of the controversial "Operation Fast and Furious" run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF.
"It's sad to know our own government allowed those weapons to get into the hands of the cartels and to know we still have agents in Mexico who are exposed," she told Reuters after a news conference held jointly with Avila's family.
An ATF spokeswoman said Friday that the weapons used in the attack on Zapata and Avila were not linked to Fast and Furious. The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.
Fast and Furious was a federal law enforcement program intended to track weapons sold in Arizona that were suspected of being transported to Mexico for use by violent drug cartels.
Republicans accuse the Obama administration of allowing guns to enter Mexico that were used in at least one case to kill a U.S. official - Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot dead during a confrontation with suspected border bandits in Arizona in December 2010.
Following Zapata's murder, the ATF traced the assault rifle used in the shooting to a purchase made by three Dallas-area men, who were sentenced in February for buying a dozen firearms transferred to the Zetas, one of Mexico's most feared drug gangs.
Lawyers representing Avila and the Zapata family filed three claims June 14 against federal agencies, demanding more than $62 million in damages in what one of the lawyers said was a precursor to a federal suit.
Mary Zapata said federal officials have not shared any details surrounding her son's death beyond what has already been reported in the media.
"It has been very difficult," she said. "I feel like I owe my son justice and we haven't gotten it."
Avila has recovered from the gunshot wounds to his leg, but remains on leave from ICE as he continues to recover emotionally, said his sister and lawyer, Magdalena Villalobos.
"There's not a day that goes by - not a moment - that this isn't on his mind," she said. "It's been very difficult."
An alleged member of the Zetas cartel, Julian Zapata Espinoza, was subsequently arrested and extradited to the United States last December.
Furor over Operation Fast and Furious has drawn intense scrutiny from Republicans in Congress, and led to calls for Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads up the Justice Department, to step down.
Holder was cited on Thursday for contempt of Congress by the Republican-led House of Representatives. The Justice Department, which he heads, said Friday it would not prosecute him. (Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Tim Gaynor)