The suspected drug cartel leader behind the fatal roadside attack of federal agent and Brownsville native Jaime Zapata appeared in U.S. federal court on Wednesday.
Julian Zapata Espinoza, a member of Los Zetas — one of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartels — entered a plea of not guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. He remains in custody without bond in the case.
Court records show three other Zetas in Mexican custody already are under sealed indictment in U.S. federal court, as well.
Zapata Espinoza faces charges of murder and attempted murder after the Feb. 15 attack along the Pan American Highway outside San Luis Potosi, S.L.P., where a group of Zetas ambushed a Chevrolet suburban driven by Zapata, 32, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, and wounded his partner, Victor Avila.
A five-count indictment that accuses Zapata Espinoza of the ICE agents’ ambush was unsealed Wednesday.
The attack was the first against U.S. federal agents operating in Mexico in a quarter century.
Short in stature, Zapata Espinoza, known as “El Piolin,” Spanish for Tweety Bird, was captured by Mexican authorities a week after the fatal highway attack.
Zapata Espinoza was believed to be a local Zetas cell leader who ordered the attack on the ICE agents’ vehicle.
The ambush came after two groups of estacas — eight-member armed crews of Zetas — surrounded the agents SUV, which bore diplomatic license plates and forced the vehicle from the road, court records state.
The agents attempted to identify themselves as U.S. diplomats. But the Zetas opened fire through a partially-opened window, ripping off more than 80 rounds before Zapata managed to move the vehicle.
Zapata Espinoza was a member of one of the estacas involved in the attack, court records state.
U.S. authorities brought charges against him April 19 — nearly two months after his arrest. In a motion that kept the case sealed until Wednesday, agents wrote several other members of the hit squad that killed Zapata remained at large in Mexico.
Those arrested have told Mexican authorities the attack on Zapata and Avila was a mistake, apparently confusing the agents’ armored, black Chevrolet Suburban with that of members from a rival drug cartel.
Investigators traced one of the firearms used in the agents’ attack to Otilio Osorio, a resident of a Dallas suburb who pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges in October.
Zapata has been honored as a hero by local, state and federal officials since his murder. The street where Zapata grew up and his parents still live now bears his name.
ICE Director John Morton met with Zapata’s family in July, months after he came for the slain agent’s funeral.
“The extradition and charges filed against Zapata Espinoza is an important step in bringing Jaime and Victor's alleged shooters to justice,” Morton said in a statement.
Court records suggest Zapata Espinoza will not be the only Zeta suspect arrested by Mexican authorities who U.S. investigators want to extradite north of the border.
A record filed in June states three other Zetas members have been named in indictments that remained under seal on Wednesday.
Ruben Dario “Catracho” Venegas Rivera, Jose Ismael “El Cacho” Villagram and Francisco Carbajal Flores — all suspected Zeta members detained in Mexico — all face indictment in the U.S., but their cases remain under court seal.
Zapata Espinoza, along with the three other suspects, are named in a filing that includes an affidavit from a federal court reporter who said he mistakenly erased testimony given by a special agent investigating the Zapata murder case. That testimony came at an April 19 grand jury proceeding — the day Zapata Espinoza’s indictment was filed.
An ICE spokesperson had no comment beyond the agency news release announcing Zapata Espinoza’s extradition and indictment.
‘HE CANNOT BE REPLACED’
Almost 35,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared his war against drug cartels five years ago.
One of those slain was Zapata. It’s a fact that his mother, Mary, has lived with the past 10 months. And she will live with it the rest of her life.
Wednesday’s news that the first suspect in Zapata’s murder investigation landed on U.S. soil brought joy to the family, she said.
“My main concern is my son is gone. He cannot be replaced. I cannot push a button and bring him back,” Mary Zapata said in an interview Wednesday with The Brownsville Herald.
Zapata had been in Mexico for only nine days when he was murdered. And despite growing up in Brownsville, he’d only been south of the Rio Grande once before that — a vacation in Cancun, his mother said. She said she wants to ask Zapata Espinoza why he killed her son.
“I want to go see him, I want to go ask him why,” Mary Zapata said. “Usually, when you kill somebody it’s because they are shooting at you. I know my son did not have that heart.”
Jared Taylor covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 683-4439.