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Reputed Mexican cartel chief charged in killing of U.S. agent

Julian Zapata Espinoza, an alleged chief with the Zetas drug cartel, pleads not guilty in the slaying of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata.

December 22, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A reputed Mexican drug cartel leader was charged in the ambush slaying this year of a U.S. immigration officer in Mexico — a killing that set off a massive search for the assailants on both sides of the border.

Julian Zapata Espinoza, an alleged chief with the Zetas cartel, pleaded not guilty in a brief court appearance Wednesday in the killing 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.

Zapata Espinoza, 30, 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 killing. Some of those arrested 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 Zapata Espinoza, including murder and attempted murder of two U.S. officers, carry a potential life sentence with no parole. He was ordered held without bail. U.S. authorities said Zapata Espinoza "participated" in the shootings, but did not elaborate on whether he actually was at the scene of the roadside slaying or had ordered it from afar.

U.S. Atty. 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."

Ron Earnest, a defense attorney representing Zapata Espinoza, said the government had advised him that prosecutors would contend his client was at the scene of the shooting. Earnest added that the suspect was brought to the United States this week from Veracruz, Mexico.

He was secretly indicted in Washington on April 19. U.S. authorities thanked Mexican officials for their cooperation but noted that this was not a death penalty case. Mexico does not have capital punishment.

According to an internal report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, three firearms with obliterated serial numbers were recovered by Mexican authorities after the shooting. The serial numbers were raised by U.S. agents, and the firearms were subsequently traced.

One of the weapons was "traced directly" to Otilio Osorio Jr. of Lancaster, Texas. Ballistics testing further confirmed the weapon "was used in the murder" of Zapata, the ATF report said. It had been illegally purchased at a gun store in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and Osorio, 22, pleaded guilty in October to three counts of weapons violations.

Lawmakers in Washington who are investigating the ATF's bungled Fast and Furious operation, which attempted to track illegally purchased guns on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have contended that Osorio was known to the ATF as an illegal purchaser. But, they said, the ATF failed for three months to file reports on his activities, and did not do so until Feb. 25, the same day the ATF traced the Zapata murder weapon back to Osorio.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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