Thursday, November 3, 2011

Suspect in agent's Mexico killing handed over to U.S.

Mexican officials reportedly turned him over.

  • Jaime Zapata was shot Feb. 15 in an SUV in central Mexico. Photo: AP / SA
    Jaime Zapata was shot Feb. 15 in an SUV in central Mexico.
    Photo: AP / SA

HOUSTON — One of the alleged killers of a federal agent is in U.S. custody after being handed over by the Mexican government, multiple sources close to the investigation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.
The person's identity and location are being kept secret, as is whether he was officially extradited to face U.S. justice or snared in some other manner.

The Justice Department declined to comment, as did Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But sources familiar with the investigation told the Chronicle a man believed to have killed ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in February as he traveled through Mexico with another agent is now on U.S. soil.

The killing of the Brownsville native touched off law enforcement raids throughout Mexico and the United States and triggered calls for justice by President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
Last month, during a visit to Houston, Zapata's parents said they have not been told the whole truth about their son's killing and want answers.

After the attack, as many as a dozen apparent members of the Zetas drug cartel were arrested in Mexico, including one who confessed his role and said they didn't realize the men were U.S. agents.

Some of those arrested have sat in Mexican custody for months as authorities considered whether they should first face trial in Mexico or be sent to the United States.

If any of them are U.S. citizens, they could simply be expelled from Mexico and turned over to the U.S. But Mexican citizens would have to go through an extradition hearing, which would require a ruling by a Mexican judge and produce public records.

Once charged in the U.S., they would have to appear before a federal magistrate.

Alonzo Peña, a retired deputy director of ICE, said the arrival in the U.S. of any of Zapata's killers would be a testament to joint efforts by two nations.

“It is another sign of great cooperation between Mexico and the United States to dismantle these violent cartels, and again showing the commitment to go after anybody who harms our agents,” he said.

When asked if anyone believed to be responsible for Zapata's death has been handed over, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a former federal prosecutor who is now chairman of a House Homeland Security Committee panel on investigations and oversight that looked into the killing, had no comment on specifics. He did not confirm that a suspect was sent to the U.S.

He did say he has “been advised that with Mexico's assistance, we are making progress in apprehending Agent Zapata's suspected killers and ensuring that they face the United States justice system.”

McCaul, R-Austin, and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn requested expedited briefings on the case Wednesday but did not immediately hear back from the administration.

Zapata and agent Victor Avila were attacked during the day as their armor-plated SUV, with diplomatic plates, headed down a highway in central Mexico. The SUV was run off the highway and quickly surrounded by armed gangsters.

As the vehicle was put in park, the door locks reportedly popped open, triggering a fight in which the agents pushed away their attackers. They reportedly flashed their government credentials. The assailants stuck an AK-47 and a pistol through a partially opened window and opened fire.

Zapata, who was the driver, was killed. Avila was injured, but survived.

U.S. authorities have been working with Mexican officials investigating the shooting, and the U.S. government offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to arrests in the case.

“Mexico is a sovereign country, and we should not do anything without their consent and without their request,” said Cornyn, a former state attorney general. “The good news is, there is a lot going on, some of which we can't talk about in terms of cooperation between our two governments.”

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