Commander of drug cartel guilty of shooting ICE agents in Mexico

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Julian Zapata Espinoza, a cell commander of the brutal Los Zetas drug cartel, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in the District to the killing of agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of his partner during a February 2011 daylight ambush on a major highway 250 miles north of Mexico City.

Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that the court also unsealed Thursday the guilty pleas of three other Los Zetas members on related murder, attempted murder, racketeering and accessory charges.

“The deadly ambush of two highly dedicated and courageous American law enforcement officers by the Los Zetas drug cartel demanded an intense, dedicated and forceful response,” Mr. Machen said. “The message to any criminal who dares to commit an act of violence against a U.S. law enforcement officer serving in a foreign land is unmistakable — if you commit such a heinous crime, we will not forget, we will not falter, and we will not rest until you are brought to justice.”

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth said the U.S. agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for Zapata Espinoza’s extradition.

On Feb. 15, 2011, Jaime Zapata and agent Victor Avila of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were driving from Monterrey to Mexico City, where they were assigned to ICE’s attache office when drug cartel members forced their vehicle from the highway and opened fire.

Jaime Zapata was mortally wounded, struck five times in the chest. Mr. Avila was shot twice in the leg but survived.

Neither of the agents was armed, as the Mexican government does not permit U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons into that country.

Zapata Espinoza, known as “El Piolin” or “Tweety Bird” because of his short height, was identified by Mexican authorities as the leader of a Zetas hit team in the city of San Luis Potosi.

As commander of a heavily armed Mexican narco-trafficking cartel and transnational criminal organization, he attempted to hijack Jaime Zapata and Mr. Avila’s armored government vehicle as the agents were driving on Highway 57 in San Luis Potosi.

Mr. Machen said evidence in the case showed that two armed Zetas hit squads, or “estacas,” surrounded their vehicle. Zapata Espinoza, the leader of the attack, ordered the agents to exit their vehicle.

When the agents refused and attempted to identify themselves as diplomats from the U.S. Embassy, he said the hit squad members fired weapons near and into the vehicle, striking both agents. The hit team continued to fire at the vehicle as the agents attempted to drive away.

Zapata Espinoza was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia in April 2011 on multiple counts pertaining to the ambush killing, and was extradited to the U.S. on Dec. 20, 2011.

Mr. Machen also announced guilty pleas by three other defendants. Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, also known as “Catracho,” 25, pleaded guilty Aug. 1, 2011, to federal charges concerning the killing of Jaime Zapata and attempted murder of Mr. Avila; Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, also known as “Cacho,” 30, pleaded guilty Jan. 4, 2012, also to federal charges in the attack; and Francisco Carbajal Flores, also known as “Dalmata,” 38, pleaded guilty Jan. 10, 2012, to conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity and to being an accessory after the fact to the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents.

As part of their guilty pleas, Zapata Espinoza, Venegas Rivera and Nava Villagran admitted to being members of a Los Zetas hit squad and to participating directly in the ambush. The fourth defendant, Carbajal Flores, acknowledged assisting Los Zetas members after the Feb. 15 attack.

All four defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison. No sentencing date has been set.

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