Big drug suspect roundup comes after agent’s murder

Federal authorities in the United States have arrested hundreds of people with suspected ties to Mexican drug cartels following the shooting death of a U.S. law enforcement agent in Mexico last week.

More than 3,000 federal, state and local law enforcement personnel conducted raids in major U.S. cities this week, arresting nearly 700 suspects, and confiscating large quantities of drugs, weapons, and at least $8 million in cash.

The sweep occurred just days after Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, was gunned down Feb. 15 on a highway in Mexico’s San Luis Potosi state. Fellow agent Victor Ávila was wounded in the ambush by suspected drug cartel members.

U.S. authorities said they would not tolerate attacks against its agents, and threatened to take strong action against the perpetrators of such violence. Zapata was the first U.S. agent to be killed in Mexico since Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and murdered while working with the Drug Enforcement Administration 26 years ago.

When the roundup began in the United States, Mexican authorities announced they had detained Julian Zapata Espinosa, the alleged leader of a cell of the Zeta drug cartel, and eight others believed to be connected to Zapata’s death.

According to Ricardo Trevilla, a spokesperson for the defense secretariat, the suspect confessed to having killed Zapata after mistaking the officials for members of a rival gang.

Trevilla said the alleged hitmen confused the agents’ armored sport utility vehicle they were chasing with that of an enemy cartel.

Political commentators have raised questions about the investigation, since the agent and his partner clearly identified themselves as diplomats and their car had diplomatic plates. Also, they said, it is odd that the alleged killers would have remained in San Luis Potosí where they were arrested, had they committed the high-profile murder.

Mexico’s attorney general’s office later said the detained cell leader had been arrested by the military in December 2009 after being found with assault weapons, camouflage uniforms and fake badges, but was eventually released on insufficient evidence.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón called U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday to inform him of the arrest. Admiral James Winnefeld, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said President Obama thanked President Calderón for Mexico’s efforts to bring the attackers to justice.

“President Obama expressed appreciation for the strong investigative work of the Mexicans to arrest one of special agent Zapata’s alleged killers and President Calderón expressed appreciation for the cooperation of American agents that made the arrest possible,” he said.

Since President Calderón took office in 2006, more than 34,000 people have been killed in his crackdown on organized crime. In contrast to the Zapata killing, few of these cases, however, have been investigated.

Tension between the two governments has increased over the past weeks. The Mexican president expressed anger over State Department cables obtained by the website WikiLeaks, calling Mexican law enforcement agencies corrupt, inefficient and unwilling to cooperate with each other.

In an interview with the Mexican daily El Universal this week, Calderón accused the U.S. government of not doing enough to curb drug distribution in the United States and failing to stop the flow of arms into Mexico. He said U.S. law enforcement agencies competed with each other, failing to work together and that U.S. diplomats tended to distort what is going on in Mexico, harming U.S.-Mexican relations.

Calderón’s comments came just days after the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against a measure that would have required licensed firearm dealers to report multiple sales of assault weapons — a new way to catch gunrunners to Mexico.

President Calderón will travel to Washington this coming week to meet with President Obama. Talks are expected to focus on security issues and other matters.

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