MEXICO CITY — An alleged Zetas drug cartel member arrested in the killing of a U.S. immigration agent told soldiers Wednesday 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 Wednesday on gang safehouses in the northern city of San Luis Potosi.
President Obama and other top U.S. officials offered congratulations for the arrests a week after the killing.
U.S. 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 they (the suspects) thought it was being used by members of a rival criminal group," said Col. Ricardo Trevilla, an army spokesman.
The two agents were in a Chevrolet Suburban. Mexico's drug cartels frequently set up roadblocks and ambushes to steal large SUVs and pickups, vehicles they like to use.
Zapata and Avila, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, were attacked as they returned to Mexico City from a meeting with other U.S. 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. The Mexican government does not authorize U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons.
Last week, some U.S. 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.
Trevilla, the army spokesman, said military intelligence officers had identified Zapata Espinoza as the head of a cell of Zetas gang members in San Luis Potosi since early December, when raids in the area turned up other alleged gang members.
Zapata Espinoza and the five others, including a Honduran citizen, arrested Wednesday were presented to journalists Wednesday night.