WASHINGTON - An alleged Mexican drug cartel member was arraigned in U.S. federal court Wednesday on murder charges from the roadside ambush of two U.S. immigration agents working south of the border.
A spokesman for the U.S. District Court in Washington says Julian Zapata Espinoza entered a not guilty plea and is being held in jail.
The charges included murder and attempted murder for the Feb. 15 mid-day attack along a four-lane highway that killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and wounded colleague Victor Avila as they were driving to Mexico City after a meeting with other U.S. personnel. The shooting in the northern state of San Luis Potosi was a rare attack on American officials in the country fighting violent drug cartels.
Zapata Espinoza is known by the nickname "El Piolin," or Tweety Bird, apparently because of his short stature. He was captured along with five other suspected members of the Zeta cartel during an army raid a week after the shooting and recently was extradited to the United States.
The Mexican army said Zapata Espinoza admitted killing Zapata in what he claimed was a case of mistaken identity, with the Zetas mistaking the ICE agents' Chevrolet Suburban for one used by a rival gang.
Suspect says ICE agent was slain in error
ICE Agent Death Highlights Risks in Drug War
Zapata, a 32-year-old native of the Texas border town of Brownsville, was on assignment from the ICE office in Laredo, Texas, where he served on the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit as well as the Border Enforcement Security Task Force.
Avila, who served on a unit to deter human trafficking and was based in El Paso, was shot in the leg and recovered.
ICE, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the second largest investigative agency in the federal government, enforces immigration laws and is primarily responsible for arresting, detaining and deporting people who are in the U.S. illegally. It also investigates drug cases in the U.S. and Mexico and other types of trafficking.
Mexico is fighting heavily armed and powerful drug cartels that supply the U.S. market. Since President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown against drug trafficking shortly after taking office in December 2006, almost 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.
Below, watch CBS investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson report on the details of the murder of ICE Agent, Jaime Zapata, including that the gun that killed him came from the U.S.