Mexican soldiers have arrested an alleged Zetas drug cartel member who allegedly confessed to killing a US immigration agent, but said the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
Suspect Julian Zapata Espinoza — known by the nickname “El Piolin,” or Tweety Bird, apparently because of his short stature — told soldiers that a group of gunmen from the Zetas mistook the officer’s vehicle for one used by a rival gang.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death and fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded while driving on a highway near San Luis Potosi on Feb. 15.
“That event occurred because of the characteristics of the vehicle, given that they [the suspects] thought it was being used by members of a rival criminal group,” said Colonel Ricardo Trevilla, an army spokesman.
The two agents were in a Chevrolet Suburban. Mexico’s drug cartels frequently set up roadblocks and ambushes to steal large SUVs and pickups, vehicles they like to use.
US President Barack Obama and other top US officials offered congratulations for the arrests a week after the killing.
Zapata Espinoza had been arrested in 2009, apparently on illegal weapons charges, but jumped bail and disappeared until soldiers caught him and five other suspects in raids on Wednesday on four Zetas safehouses in San Luis Potosi.
Photos from that year show Zapata Espinosa and other suspects under army custody, with the weapons and ammunition they were allegedly caught with.
Zapata and Avila, who worked at the US embassy, were attacked as they returned to Mexico City from a meeting with other US personnel in the state of San Luis Potosi.
Avila was shot twice in the leg and is recovering in the US.
Last week, some US officials maintained the attack was an intentional ambush of the agents and said the gunmen made comments before they fired indicating they knew who their targets were.
It would not be the first time that a politically sensitive killing in Mexico was identified as a case of mistaken identity. In 1993, gunmen linked to the Arellano Felix drug cartel killed Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at an airport in Guadalajara. Prosecutors later said the gunmen mistook the cardinal’s luxury car for their intended target, drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo Guzman.”
Zapata Espinoza and the five others, including a Honduran citizen, arrested Wednesday were presented to journalists on Wednesday night. The army quoted Zapata Espinoza as saying two of the five had participated in the attack on the ICE agents, but did not specify which.