MEXICO CITY — An alleged Zetas drug cartel member arrested in the killing of a US immigration agent told soldiers yesterday that the attack was a mistake, saying gunmen mistook the officer’s SUV for a vehicle used by a rival gang, the army said.
Julian Zapata Espinoza — known by the nickname “El Piolin,’’ or Tweety Bird, apparently because of his short stature — was captured along with five other suspected Zetas members during an army raid yesterday on gang safehouses in the northern city of San Luis Potosi.
President Obama and other top US officials offered congratulations for the arrests, which came a week after the killing.
Attorney General’s Office spokesman Ricardo Najera told the Associated Press that Zapata Espinoza had been arrested on unspecified federal charges in 2009 but jumped bail and disappeared until he was arrested yesterday.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death and fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded near that city Feb. 15 when they were attacked while driving on a highway.
“That event occurred because of the characteristics of the vehicle, given that [the suspects] thought it was being used by members of a rival criminal group,’’ said an army spokesman, Colonel Ricardo Trevilla.
The two agents were in a Chevrolet Suburban. Mexico’s drug cartels frequently set up roadblocks and ambushes to steal large SUVs and pickups.
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 United States.
Some reports said the two were stopped at a roadblock, while others said they were run off the road by other vehicles. Mexico’s government does not authorize US law enforcement personnel to carry weapons.
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 the western city of Guadalajara. Prosecutors later said the gunmen mistook the cardinal’s luxury car for their intended target, drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo Guzman.’’
Though Mexico is seeing record rates of violence, it is rare for US officials to be attacked. The US government, however, has become increasingly concerned about the safety of its employees in the country.