- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mexican army has arrested six members of the violent drug cartel Los Zetas in the Feb. 15 shooting death of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent Jaime Zapata, killed after he and his partner were ambushed on a major Mexican highway.

One of those arrested, Julian Zapata Espinoza, was identified as a Los Zetas cell leader and taken into custody with the others during a raid on a gang safe house in San Luis Potosi, about 250 miles north of Mexico City.

Mr. Zapata and his partner, Victor Avila, 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.

Mr. 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 let U.S. law enforcement personnel 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. He reportedly told Mexican authorities the attack was a case of mistaken identity.

Mexican army spokesman Col. Ricardo Trevilla said: “That event occurred because of the characteristics of the vehicle, given that [the suspects] thought it was being used by members of a rival criminal group.”

But U.S. law enforcement authorities said the two agents identified themselves as Americans. They also noted that their vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, had diplomatic plates. The officials also said the gunmen made comments before opening fire on the agents indicating they knew who their targets were.

Mexican authorities paraded Zapata Espinoza and the others before the news media.

The others included Jesus Ivan Quesada Pena and Ruben Diario Venegas, both of Honduras; and Armando Alvarez Saldana, Mario Dominguez Realeo and Martin Barcenas Tapia, all of Mexico.

Also taken into custody were three women, though authorities did not identify them as gang members: Diana Margarita Guerrero Morales, Roxana Mierya Rios Velazquez and Magli Chain Castillo Lopez, whom Mexican officials identified as Zapata Espinoza’s wife.

Seized during the raid on four safe houses in the San Luis Potosi area were five rifles, a handgun, an undisclosed amount of cash, ammunition clips and five vehicles, including one that is bulletproof. Also seized were payroll forms for the gunmen who belonged to the cell.

Prosecutors in Mexico asked a federal judge to hold the suspects in preventive detention “so they can continue investigations in the case,” said Ricardo Celso Najera, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general’s office.

The Mexican authorities’ announcement of an arrest in the shooting was described by ICE Director John Morton as a “welcome development.”

“We are encouraged by this action and appreciate the efforts by Mexico to bring Special Agent Zapata’s killers to justice” Mr. Morton said. “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,” he said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said in a statement that Mexican authorities had “worked closely with both the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security” to investigate the shooting. She said that “the law enforcement cooperation seen in this investigation thus far demonstrates how working together toward common goals serves the interests of both countries and of our citizens.”

The White House said President Obama had spoken with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and “thanked him for Mexican efforts to bring to justice the murderers.” In a statement, the White House said, “The president said neither the U.S. nor Mexico could tolerate violence against those who serve and protect our citizens, as Special Agent Zapata did so selflessly through his own life.”

Mr. Calderon has announced a visit to Washington next week.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also welcomed the news of the arrest, saying her department would 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.”


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