By Gary Martin/San Antonio Express News
WASHINGTON — A federal judge signaled Wednesday that he would allow Mexico and U.S. prosecutors to team up in the trial of a Mexican drug cartel member accused of killing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Jaime Zapata.
It was the first time that Julian Zapata Espinoza, known as “El Piolín” or “Tweety Bird,” has appeared in U.S. court since he was arraigned in December.
U.S. Chief Judge Royce Lamberth warned that even though he would waive provisions for a speedy trial because of its complex nature, prosecutors from both governments would need to move expeditiously regardless of sovereignty issues.
“We can send them right back to their sovereignty if they do not want to cooperate with us,” Lamberth said.
Justice Department lawyer Michael DiLorenzo asked the judge to designate the case complex and give more time to the prosecution to receive ballistics reports, crime scene reports and documents from agencies in Mexico where the crime occurred.
Lamberth said he would likely rule in favor of the request over the objections by court-appointed defense lawyer Ron Earnest.Zapata Espinoza, sporting a goatee and close-cropped hair, was in the courtroom wearing an orange District of Columbia jail jumpsuit.
He remained motionless during the proceedings.
“He's a little surprised. He's disoriented. He's not familiar with the American system of justice,” Earnest said.
Lamberth set another hearing date of April 25. A trial in the case is not expected until later this year.
A federal grand jury in Washington returned a sealed indictment last April charging Zapata Espinoza with the murder of Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE special agent Victor Avila.
Zapata Espinoza also is charged with murder and attempted murder of internationally protected persons and using a firearm during the crimes.
The indictments were opened when Zapata Espinoza was extradited from Mexico in December to face the charges in U.S. district court.
He is being held without bail.
Agent Zapata, 32, of Brownsville was gunned down Feb. 15.
Zapata and Avila were consultants working with the Mexican government and traveling between Mexico City and Monterrey, near San Luis Potosí, when they were ambushed by a group of armed men.
Mexican and U.S. officials said the ambush was carried out by Los Zetas, one of the major criminal drug cartels operating in Mexico.
Ballistics and crime scene reports, as well as analysis, is part of the information Justice Department lawyers want to see before the next hearing.
“We continue to work with our partners south of the border to obtain additional documents,” DiLorenzo told the judge.
Zapata Espinoza has confessed to the shooting death of agent Zapata to Mexican authorities.
The National Defense Secretariat of Mexico said five other Los Zetas cartel members also were arrested in connection with the ambush.
Earnest said that even with indictments, he expects Zapata Espinoza to be tried alone on the charges he faces.
The death of Zapata and the attempted killing of Avila became an international incident that was discussed between President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón during a state visit last year.
Calderón and Mexican officials worked with the Justice Department, FBI, ICE, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other U.S. agencies on the investigation.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, officials estimate that as many as 47,000 people have been killed in the drug wars since Calderón ordered a crackdown nearly six years ago.