WASHINGTON (AP) - An alleged Mexican drug cartel member was arraigned in U.S. federal court Wednesday on murder charges from the roadside ambush of two U.S. immigration agents working south of the border.
A spokesman for the U.S. District Court in Washington says Julian Zapata Espinoza entered a not guilty plea. U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth ordered him held in jail without bail on the charges that could carry a life sentence if he's convicted.
The charges included murder and attempted murder for the Feb. 15 mid-day attack along a four-lane highway that killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and wounded colleague Victor Avila as they were driving to Mexico City after a meeting with other U.S. personnel. The shooting in the northern state of San Luis Potosi was a rare attack on American officials in the country fighting violent drug cartels.
Zapata Espinoza is known by the nickname "El Piolin," or Tweety Bird, apparently because of his short stature. He was captured along with five other suspected members of the Zeta cartel during an army raid a week after the shooting and was extradited this week.
The Mexican attorney general's office said in a statement Wednesday that Zapata Espinonza had been kept in a prison in the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz for the past seven months and was turned over to FBI agents Tuesday at the city of Veracruz airport.
The Mexican army has said Zapata Espinoza admitted killing Zapata in what he claimed was a case of mistaken identity, with the Zetas mistaking the ICE agents' Chevrolet Suburban for one used by a rival gang. Zapata Espinoza's four-page indictment said he and others shot the agents "with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation" during an attempt to rob them, but provided few other details.
Zapata, a 32-year-old native of the Texas border town of Brownsville, was on assignment from the ICE office in Laredo, Texas.
Avila, who was based in El Paso, was shot in the leg and recovered.
The indictment against Zapata Espinoza was returned by a grand jury on April 19 and unsealed Wednesday.
ICE, the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, enforces immigration laws and is primarily responsible for arresting, detaining and deporting people who are in the U.S. illegally. It also investigates drug cases in the U.S. and Mexico and other types of trafficking.
Mexico is fighting heavily armed and powerful drug cartels that supply the U.S. market. More than 45,000 people have been killed by several counts, though the government stopped giving figures on drug war dead when they hit nearly 35,000 a year ago.