MEXICO CITY—A possible suspect has emerged in the killing of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata, who was buried Tuesday in Brownsville, Texas.
Jesús "El Mamito" Rejón, a former corporal in Mexico's elite forces who became a top leader in the violent Zeta cartel is one of the people the U.S. believes may have been involved in the killing of Mr. Zapata last week. The ICE agent was attacked by gunmen who ran an armored SUV being driven by Mr. Zapata off one of Mexico's busiest highways about 150 miles north of Mexico City. Another agent, Victor Avila, survived the attack.
"El Mamito and all Zetas are being closely looked at by Mexican authorities, supported by the joint Department of Homeland Security Department of Justice task force," said a U.S. official involved in the investigation. "He is very well-known to us. He is in the mix."
The original Zetas, a group of about 40 highly trained members of Mexico's army special forces, were recruited to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas broke with the Gulf Cartel last year, and have been fighting a brutal turf war with them ever since.
A communiqué from cartels at war with the Zetas sent to the Brownsville Herald last week fingered Mr. Rejón, 34, as the man behind the attack. It is common in Mexico for rival cartels to take credit for attacks or to blame others for them. An article by the Herald published Friday said the communiqué blamed the Zetas and Mr. Rejón for the death of Mr. Zapata. It also blamed the Zetas for a number of other recent atrocities, including the August massacre of 72 migrants, the Herald article said.
Mr. Zapata was the first U.S. law-enforcement agent to die in the line of duty in Mexico since 1985 when Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was killed. kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Mr. Camarena's death led to heightened tensions with Mexico and a tough crackdown on drug dealers. Since then, Mexican traffickers have steered clear of U.S. agents in Mexico. But some U.S. officials worry that last week's attack signals that cartel gunmen may no longer abide by the unwritten law in place since Mr. Camarena's death, which appeared to provide U.S. agents in Mexico a measure of protection.
During last week's attack, the ICE agents were fired on after they identified themselves as U.S. diplomats. "The Zetas are sending a message to U.S. law enforcement that if confronted, they will kill," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking and Latin America at the University of Miami
Mexican and U.S. officials haven't yet come up with a motive for the attack. Some believe that the attackers may have wanted to steal the armored SUV driven by the ICE agents as it is the type of vehicle preferred by cartel gunmen. Driving such cars in the area has become so dangerous that SUV sales have plummeted as owners trade them in for lower-profile and smaller cars.
Mr. Rejón, a former corporal in Mexico's army special forces, was trained in the use of explosives and is also an expert sniper, according to a profile compiled by Mexican intelligence services. While still with the military, Mr. Rejón commanded the federal police in the Ciudad Miguel Aleman, a town in the state of Tamaulipas. He deserted the military in 1999.
In 2009, Mr. Rejón was one of 20 top leaders of the Gulf Cartel indicted by the U.S. for importing tons of cocaine. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. Mexico is also offering a $2.3 million reward for Mr. Rejón.
The intelligence profile of Mr. Rejón details his love of horse racing and tells how he once bet $500,000 on a horse. Indeed, Mr. Rejón's life alternated between horse races and carrying out assassinations all over Mexico. Among his duties, the report says, is to run a training camp for Zeta recruits.