In a press conference on Wednesday that seemed more designed to placate United States’ calls for justice in the murder of one of its anti-drug agents than illustrate Mexican resolve, Mexican authorities announced that they had arrested several members of the Zetas criminal syndicate who they say were responsible for the murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata.
However, the media display provoked more questions than answers, most importantly, why was the main suspect in the case released after being jailed in 2009?
El Universal reports that Julian Zapata Espinosa, the main suspect who military officials presented to the press on Wednesday, first came to the attention of Mexican authorities in late 2009, when he was arrested for possessing military-grade firearms and fake military uniforms, both of which are signature trademarks of the criminal gang, the Zetas.
Although he was sentenced to prison in connection to these charges, in December 2009 a judge released him on bail. Once freed, Zapata Espinosa assumed a false name and went missing, becoming even more deeply involved in Zetas’ activities in the San Luis Potosi area.
Speaking at the press conference (featured below), military spokesman Colonel Ricardo Trevilla said that Zapata Espinosa, alias ‘El Piolin,’ ran the hit squad that intercepted ICE agent Zapata and Victor Avila, who was injured. Col. Trevilla did not take questions or address Zapata Espinosa’s criminal record.
Two other men, Jesus Ivan Quesada Pena and Ruben Diario Venegas – a Honduran citizen – were arrested for their alleged participation in the killing, according to Trevilla. Additionally, police arrested Armando Alvarez Saldana, Mario Dominguez Realeo and Martin Barcenas Tapia, who were also alleged members of the Zetas’ assassination ring.
On top of the arrests, authorities seized five rifles, a handgun, an undisclosed amount of cash and five vehicles, one of which was armored.
The ICE agent’s death set off something of an international crisis last week, with some politicians and analysts in the U.S. suggesting that the incident was a “game-changer,” and might represent a targeted attack on American counter-narcotics operations in the country. Others, however, suggested that it was a car-jacking gone wrong.
According to Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, who was briefed by U.S. intelligence about the incident, Mexican authorities found ninety bullet casings at the scene. If the shooting was simply the result of a car-jacking gone wrong, it seems unlikely that the gumen would have fired so many rounds at the vehicle. Furthermore, as InSight has reported, the vehicle carried diplomatic license plates and the officers may have even verbally identified themselves as American officials, reinforcing the claim that the assailants did in fact know the identity of their victims.
Mexican authorities, however, have dismissed this. According to Colonel Trevilla, the gunmen attacked the ICE agents’ armored Sport Ultity Vehicle (SUV): “Because of the characteristics of the vehicle, given that they (the suspects) thought it was being driven by members of a rival criminal group.”
Agents Zapata and Avila were driving on Highway 57 in rural San Luis Potosi in a black, armored SUV, a vehicle favored by drug gangs in the region for its durability.
Cartel gunmen have murdered people by mistake in the past. Most recently, law enforcement officials have said American tourist David Hartley was killed last September in a case of mistaken identity.
Regardless of the shooters’ motives, their arrests are being heralded as a victory for Mexican law enforcement, and prompted President Barack Obama to issue a statement thanking the Mexican president for bringing the murderers to justice.