The chief suspect in custody in connection with last week’s murder of a U.S. agent in northern Mexico was detained in late 2009 and released months later due to lack of evidence.
Julian Zapata Espinoza, reputed leader of a cell of Los Zetas drug cartel gunmen, and five accomplices were arrested Wednesday for the Feb. 15 attack that left U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata dead and fellow agent Victor Avila wounded.
Mexico’s Judiciary Council issued a statement Thursday detailing that Zapata Espinoza was arrested in 2009 and ordered held for trial on charges of smuggling, racketeering, illegal weapons possession and carrying counterfeit police insignia.
But a judge later threw out the most serious counts, smuggling and racketeering, for lack of evidence.
Defense attorneys then requested that Zapata Espinoza be freed pending his trial on the lesser charges.
Overruling prosecutors’ objections, the judge ordered in March 2010 that Zapata Espinoza be released under caution.
Last month, however, the same judge ordered Zapata Espinoza re-arrested after he violated one of the conditions of his release by missing a deadline to check in with authorities.
The search for Zapata Espinoza was in progress at the time of the attack on ICE agents Zapata and Avila, who were intercepted in the central state of San Luis Potosi while driving in an armored SUV from Mexico City to the northern city of Monterrey.
About 30 ICE agents are currently working in Mexico, according to the agency, along with others from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI.
U.S. personnel are posted to the Mexican capital and other cities, such as Monterrey, Hermosillo, Guadalajara, Ciudad Juarez and Durango.
Zapata Espinoza was the leader of the “group of gunmen who attacked the U.S. agents,” Mexican authorities said, “due to confusion over the description of the vehicle carrying (the agents), since they thought it belonged to criminals from a rival group.”