Did the Zetas Force US Agent’s Killer to Surrender?

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The Zetas forced one of their henchmen to surrender to the authorities after killing a US agent last year, in the hope of heading off a Washington-backed offensive against the group, according to a captured lieutenant.

The shooting of Homeland Security investigator Jaime Zapata on February 15, 2011, was the most high-profile murder of a US agent in Mexico since the death of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena in 1985. Camarena’s torture and execution led to increased pressure from the US, prompting Mexico to crack down on the Guadalajara Cartel, which was held responsible for the killing.

After Zapata’s death the pressure was once again on Mexico to make arrests. Within eight days, the Mexican security forces had netted Julian Zapata Espinoza, alias “El Piolin,” who is suspected of ordering the ambush which killed Zapata. He has already been extradited to the US.

At the time, President Barack Obama reportedly called President Felipe Calderon to congratulate him on the timely arrest. But the story told by another captured Zetas lieutenant, Luis Jesus Sarabia, alias “Comandante Pepito,” (see photo, above) is that his comrade was actually ordered to surrender by the Zetas high command. If true, this would cast doubt on the Mexican Army’s account of the arrest.

Before his arrest in January 2012, Sarabia oversaw the Zetas’ operations in four states, including San Luis Potosi, where Zapata died. According to Proceso, Sarabia told authorities that Espinoza was under orders to “rob trucks” along the region’s most important road, Highway 57. When they saw Zapata’s armored Chevy Suburban driving by, they forced the vehicle to stop. During the ensuing struggle to open the vehicle’s door, Zapata was shot and killed.

Shortly after the incident, Sarabia reportedly met with the Zetas’ top commander Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” who demanded an explanation from him. Afterwards, according to Sarabia, the Zetas leadership decided that Espinoza would either be killed or handed over to the authorities.

How much does Sarabia’s account clash with the government’s version of events? The two stories may not be mutually exclusive. One source told InSight Crime that Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z-3,” was so spooked by Zapata’s death that he ordered his men to stop providing protection for Espinoza. He also decided not to transfer him out of San Luis Potosi, which increased the chance that he would be captured (he did transfer Sarabia, who was deployed permanently to Monclova in March 2011, according to Proceso’s account). US agencies, meanwhile, may have contributed human intelligence which would have assisted the Mexican military in identifying and detaining Espinoza so quickly.

It seems as though the Zetas did not order Espinoza to surrender, but left him in San Luis Potosi without support, in the full knowledge that the government’s attention was fixed on the area and that he would likely be picked up. The security forces may be able to claim credit for the capture, but the Zetas arguably made it easy for them.

This raises the question of why the Zetas were willing to sacrifice one of their own. It is likely because Lazcano understood that Zapata’s death would bring a disproportionate response from the Mexican security forces, under pressure from the US. Giving up the immediate culprits could mollify the US and stem a nationwide offensive against the Zetas, allowing them to carry on with business as usual.

Sarabia’s testimony gives an idea of how much the Zetas wish to avoid engaging with the US, suggesting that the group’s leadership fears becoming the principal target of US agencies. There are signs, however, that this is fast becoming the case. The US government appeared to signal an intention to bring renewed focus to the fight against the Zetas, when the Obama administration officially named them a significant transnational criminal organization last year. The Mexican government also revamped their security strategy, naming the Zetas as their top priority in 2011.

If anything, Sarabia’s account points to the Zetas’ fear of attracting the attention of the US authorities. It is up to both US and Mexican agencies to figure out how to best use that fear as a weapon against the group.

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