An alleged Zetas drug cartel member arrested in the killing of a U.S. immigration agent told soldiers Wednesday the attack was a mistake, saying gunmen mistook the officer's SUV for a vehicle used by a rival gang, the army said.
A soldier escorts Julian Zapata Espinoza, known as "Piolin", or Tweety Bird, a ring leader of a cell of Los Zetas operating out of southern Nuevo Leon, during a media presentation at Military Zone in Mexico City February 23, 2011. The Mexican army said on Wednesday it had arrested Julian Zapata Espinoza in the roadside killing of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico last week that sparked outrage in the United States. A second ICE agent was wounded in the shooting on a major highway near the central city of San Luis Potosi, north of the capital, in one of the worst attacks on U.S. agents in Mexico in more than a decade and a sign of Mexico's worsening drug war.
The Mexican government said Wednesday it had detained a suspect in the killing of ICE Special Agent Jaime Jorge Zapata and that the suspect told authorities that Zapata’s SUV was attacked because it was mistaken for that of a rival drug organization.
Last week, some U.S. officials maintained the attack was an intentional ambush of the agents and said the gunmen made comments before they fired indicating they knew who their targets were.
Julian Zapata Espinoza, known as “El Piolin,” was detained along with five other suspected members of a local cell of the Zetas organization, a press release from the Mexico Attorney General’s office said.
The release said that Zapata Espinoza was caught Wednesday when the military raided four buildings in San Luis Potosí state used as safe houses by the suspects. It identified Zapata Espinoza as the chief of the Zetas cell in the area.
The Attorney General’s office, known as the PGR, said Zapata Espinoza told soldiers of his role with the Zetas and said that he was the head of a group of gunmen that attacked the vehicle in which Zapata and fellow agent Victor Avila were traveling on Feb. 15. Zapata was killed and Avila was wounded in the attack, which occurred on Highway 57 in the state of San Luis Potosí.
A soldier escorts Julian Zapata Espinoza (3rd L), known as "Piolin", a ring leader of a cell of Los
Also detained Wednesday and identified as suspected members of the Zetas were Armando Álvarez Saldaña, Mario Domínguez Realeo o Domingo Díaz Rosas, Jesús Iván Quezada Peña, Martin Bárcenas Tapia and Rubén Darío Venegas, who was said to be from Honduras.
The PGR release also listed three women and one minor as detained but gave no information about them other than their names. The women were identified as Diana Margarita Guerrero Morales, Roxana Mireya Ríos Velázquez and Magali Chaín Castillo López, said to be the wife of Zapata Espinoza.
The news release said Zapata Espinoza told authorities that the vehicle in which the two U.S. agents were riding was similar to one used by a rival drug gang and it was attacked for that reason. Zapata Espinoza also named Jesus Ivan “El Loco” Quezada Pena and Ruben Dario “El Catracho” Venegas as others who participated in the attack, the PGR said.
It would not be the first time that a politically sensitive killing in Mexico was identified as a case of mistaken identity.
In 1993, gunmen linked to the Arellano Felix drug cartel killed Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at an airport in the western city of Guadalajara. Prosecutors later said the gunmen mistook the cardinal's luxury car for their intended target, drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo Guzman."
Several other recent high-profile cartel killings of people not involved in the drug trade, including the September killing of American tourist David Hartley, have been ascribed by law enforcement officials to cases of mistaken identity.
Soldiers escort Julian Zapata Espinosa, aka 'El Piolin', fourth right, alleged member of the Los Zetas drug cartel
The release said the Mexican military had had a line on this Zetas group because of information gathered in December following a separate arrest of suspected Zetas.
Wednesday’s raid also resulted in the seizure of six weapons, five vehicles, 41 magazines for ammunition, communications equipment, and various documents, including payroll information and membership lists of the organization.
ICE Director John Morton responded to the news of the arrest with his own statement, saying: “The announcement today by Mexican authorities of an arrest in the shooting of ICE Special Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila is a welcome development. We are encouraged by this action and appreciate the efforts by Mexico to bring Special Agent Zapata’s killers to justice.”
He added: “It is important to remember that this is an ongoing investigation, and we will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners in Mexico and in the United States as it unfolds. We continue to hold the Zapata family in our thoughts and prayers, and look forward to a swift resolution of this case.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also issued a statement: "I welcome the news that Mexican authorities have apprehended one of the alleged killers of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata. We will continue to assist the ongoing Mexican investigation with every resource at our disposal and to ensure that all those responsible for Special Agent Zapata’s murder face justice.
“We will also continue our vigorous and coordinated efforts to defeat the criminal organizations operating in Mexico that seek to exploit our shared border. Our thoughts and prayers remain with Agent Zapata’s family, his friends, and his colleagues."
San Luis Potosi is at the center of a power struggle between two rival drug gangs, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel. It is also on the route north used by migrants seeking to reach the United States, and officials say cartels have begun recruiting some migrants to work for the gangs.
Though Mexico is seeing record rates of violence, it is rare for U.S. officials to be attacked. The U.S. government, however, has become increasingly concerned about the safety of its employees in the country.
In March, a U.S. employee of the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez, her husband and a Mexican tied to the consulate were killed when drug gang members fired on their cars after they left a children's party in the city across from El Paso, Texas.
The White House meanwhile announced Wednesday that US President Barack Obama would meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon next week, amid continuing drug violence and tensions over their joint strategy to tackle it. President Barack Obama also released a statement thanking the Mexican president for the arrests.
Records generated by the Mexican government obtained by The Brownsville Herald show that the area where the attack occurred has been the location of numerous incidents related to drug trafficking and criminal organizations, and also of their encounters with Mexican authorities.
There were several military operations on the day the agents were attacked, but the information does not suggest any connection. The time of the operations is not noted in the reports.
Although it is illegal for U.S. law enforcement officials in Mexico to carry weapons, U.S. officials have not commented on any protection the two special agents might have had, or why they would travel in the area seemingly unprotected.
From January to the day after the special agents were attacked, more than 20 operations and confrontations had taken place in the state of San Luis Potosi, according to the Herald’s review of records.
On Tuesday, Morton, who was in Brownsville for the Zapata’s funeral, declined to comment on whether U.S. law enforcement should be allowed to carry weapons in Mexico and whether that was in issue in Zapata’s death.
“A very serious investigation is under way,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about the details, how Mr. Zapata was killed.”
Morton did say that the U.S. and Mexico are working hand in hand.
Washington has vowed the gunmen will face "justice," while Mexican investigators are working with a joint task force of the US Justice Department and Homeland Security to probe the shooting.
“Together with the authorities in Mexico, we are going to make sure that what Jaime was all about is vindicated,” he said. “There will be justice and we are not going to shy away from what we are doing.”
El Piolín had been arrested in 2009
The Mexican Attorney General says that Julian Zapata was arrested by the Army for crimes related to organized crime, but was released on bail
The Attorney General's Office (PGR) confirmed that Julian Zapata Espinoza, El Piolin, a cell leader of "Los Zetas “operating in San Luis Potosi and charged with the murder of ICE American agent Jaime Zapata , was arrested by the army in December of 2009 for crimes related to organized crime.
According to the agency, Zapata Espinoza posted bail since being he was only indicted for misdemeanors charges and was able to secure his freedom, but this year the government ordered his re-arrest, as he did not appears in his criminal trial in San Luis Potosi.
In December 2009, the SEDENA presented to the media seven people in San Luis Potosi who had been arrested in the municipality of Rio Verde for possession of weapons and having uniforms used exclusively by the military.
Among those arrested was Zapata Espinoza, now the leader of a group of thugs of Los Zetas in San Luis Potosi.
The Brownville Herald