Mexican law enforcement arrested a co-founder of the Los Zetas drug cartel in the brutal highway-ambush killing of an unarmed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in February, Mexico’s Public Security Ministry announced Monday.
Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, 35, described as “one of the founders of the Zetas criminal organization” and the gang’s third most powerful leader, was taken into custody Sunday in the Mexico City suburb of Atizapan, “without firing a shot.”
He was one of Mexico’s most-wanted men, and the U.S. Justice, State and Homeland Security departments had announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
A Mexican police officer who was with Mr. Rejon Aguilar also was detained, and officers seized weapons, money, documents and communication equipment.
Mexican officials paraded Mr. Rejon Aguilar before reporters Monday in Mexico City.
Agent Jaime Zapata, 32, was killed Feb. 15 while he and his partner, Victor Avila Jr., were driving from Monterrey to Mexico City, where they were assigned to ICE’s attache office.
Drug cartel members ambushed the agents near San Luis Potosi, about 250 miles north of Mexico City. The shooters forced the agents’ vehicle from the roadway at what appeared to be a highway checkpoint and then opened fire, some using AK-47 assault rifles. More than two dozen members of Los Zetas have been arrested in the case, including Julian Zapata Espinoza, identified as the gang’s cell leader in San Luis Potosi, and the gang’s suspected paymaster, Mario “El Mayito” Jimenez.
Mr. Zapata was hit by five bullets in his chest and died en route to a hospital. Mr. Avila was shot twice in the leg and survived. Neither of the agents was armed, as the Mexican government does not allow U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons.
U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities have said the two agents were southbound on the four-lane federal toll highway in an armored blue Chevrolet Suburban with diplomatic plates when they stopped about 2:30 p.m. at what appeared to be a checkpoint with men dressed in camouflage and carrying automatic weapons.
The authorities said Mr. Zapata had rolled down his window to identify himself and his partner, in both Spanish and English, as American citizens and diplomats when the shooting erupted.
The officials also said the gunmen made comments before opening fire on the agents indicating that they knew who their targets were. San Luis Potosi police said that at least 10 assailants were involved in the shooting and that the agents’ bullet-riddled vehicle was found off to the side of the highway.
Mexican authorities said Mr. Rejon Aguilar, known as “El Mamito,” had been a member of the Mexican special forces but deserted his unit in 1999. He was described as a founding member of Los Zetas, which initially served as armed enforcers for the infamous Gulf Cartel.
Los Zetas have since split with their former bosses and have been engaged in brutal turf wars for control of cocaine-, marijuana- and heroin-smuggling routes into the United States.
Mexican authorities said Mr. Rejon Aguilar was “connected to the attack” against the ICE agents, noting that he was in charge of operations for the Zetas in San Luis Potosi when the American agents were ambushed.
“When Jaime Zapata was murdered on February 15, ‘El Mamito’ was in San Luis Potosi, coordinating actions perpetrated by the Zetas,” said Ramon E. Pequeno, anti-drug division chief of Mexico’s federal police.
Mr. Pequeno called Mr. Rejon Aguilar’s arrest “a triumph” for the Mexican government.
“El Mamito’s capture is emblematic because he was one of the original Zetas,” he said.
Mr. Rejon Aguilar also is being investigated in the killing of dozens of Central and South American migrants, whose bodies where found on a ranch in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas just 100 miles south of the U.S. border.
In the past few months, Mexican authorities have unearthed more than 140 bodies from mass graves in the state of Tamaulipas. Many of the victims were kidnapped off buses and killed when they refused to work for the Zetas. Tamaulipas, in northeastern Mexico, is across the border from Brownsville, Texas.
Violence has been commonplace in Mexico since a raging war between drug-smuggling cartels began in 2006, claiming 35,000 lives. The Los Zetas cartel is considered among the most violent drug gangs now seeking to control lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S.