By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — A reputed Mexican drug cartel leader was charged in federal court in Washington in the ambush slaying this year of a U.S. immigration officer in Mexico — a killing that set off a massive search on both sides of the Southwest border for several assailants after it was learned that one of the weapons was illegally purchased at a gun store in the Dallas area.
Julian Zapata Espinoza, an alleged chief with the Zetas cartel, pleaded not guilty in a brief court appearance Wednesday in the murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata on Feb. 15. He and another agent, who was wounded, were ambushed in their car by a convoy of vehicles in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.
The 30-year-old Espinoza, also known as “El Piolin” or “Tweety Bird,” was arrested by Mexican officials a week after the slaying, and authorities in that country identified him as the director of a Zeta assassination cell who confessed to the slaying.
Others arrested, however, said the assailants thought they were ambushing a rival gang’s vehicle and that Zapata and fellow agent Victor Avila were shot by mistake.
The charges against Espinoza, including murder and attempted murder of two U.S. officers, carry a potential life sentence with no parole.
U.S. authorities said Espinoza “participated” in the shootings but did not elaborate on whether he actually was at the scene of the roadside hit or had ordered it from afar. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., whose office in Washington will handle the case, said “this prosecution exemplifies our unwavering effort to prosecute those who committed this heinous offense against U.S. law enforcement agents.”
Espinoza was secretly indicted in Washington last April 19, but it was not until this week that he was extradited from Mexico to the United States to stand trial.
U.S. authorities thanked Mexico for their cooperation and noted that this is not a death penalty case. Mexico does not have capital punishment.