Reputed Mexican drug cartel czar charged in killing of U.S. agent

A reputed Mexican drug cartel leader was charged in federal court in Washington in the ambush slaying this year of a U.S. immigration officer in Mexico — a killing that set off a massive search on both sides of the Southwest border for several assailants after it was learned that one of the weapons was illegally purchased at a gun store in the Dallas area.

Julian Zapata Espinoza, an alleged chief with the Zetas cartel, pleaded not guilty in a brief court appearance Wednesday in the murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata on Feb. 15. He and another agent, who was wounded, were ambushed in their car by a convoy of vehicles in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

The 30-year-old Espinoza, also known as “El Piolin” or “Tweety Bird,” was arrested by Mexican officials a week after the slaying, and authorities in that country identified him as the director of a Zeta assassination cell who confessed to the slaying.

Others arrested, however, said the assailants thought they were ambushing a rival gang’s vehicle and that Zapata and fellow agent Victor Avila were shot by mistake.

The charges against Espinoza, including murder and attempted murder of two U.S. officers, carry a potential life sentence with no parole.

U.S. authorities said Espinoza “participated” in the shootings but did not elaborate on whether he actually was at the scene of the roadside hit or had ordered it from afar. U.S. Atty. Ronald C. Machen Jr., whose office in Washington will handle the case, said “this prosecution exemplifies our unwavering effort to prosecute those who committed this heinous offense against U.S. law enforcement agents.”

Espinoza was secretly indicted in Washington last April 19, but it was not until this week that he was extradited from Mexico to this country to stand trial.

U.S. authorities thanked Mexico for their cooperation and noted that this is not a death-penalty case. Mexico does not have capital punishment.


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— Richard A. Serrano in Washington


Sheriff Joe Arpaio: 'Don't ... use me as a whipping boy' [updated]

Justice Department says Sheriff Joe Arpaio's department discriminated against Latinos

Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Thursday he would cooperate “the best we can” with demands for changes to his Phoenix-based department, which federal prosecutors said had illegally arrested Latinos, abused them in the county jails and failed to properly investigate hundreds of reported sex crimes.

But Arpaio, whose national prominence is partly due to his pugnacious nature, added: “And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.”

Arpaio was responding to Justice Department findings released Thursday that found the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had engaged in a “widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos,” according to a letter of warning sent to Maricopa County officials.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez described businesses raided when Latinos gathered out front, inmates mocked with racial epithets and 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation, often involving Latino victims, that investigators botched. The Justice Department is expected to file suit in U.S. District Court in Arizona asking a federal judge to order changes in the sheriff's office.

At an afternoon news conference, Arpaio criticized the federal findings -- the result of a three-year civil rights investigation -–  as “a sad day for America as a whole.”

In response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security revoked Maricopa County jail officers’ authority to detain people on immigration charges, meaning they can’t continue to hold immigration violators who are not charged with local crimes. Arpaio said that would only lead to the release of jail inmates being held on immigration charges after committing previous offenses. Inmates could be transferred to federally controlled facilities instead of released, however.

“Don't come here and use me as a whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said. “We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration.”


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Homeland Security limits ties with Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio

U.S. accuses Arizona's Joe Arpaio of misconduct against Latinos

-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas and Richard A. Serrano in Washington

Photo: Sheriff Joe Arpaio listens to then-Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speak in October. Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters

'Fast and Furious' death: Slain ATF agent's family speaks out

Fast and Furious weaponsOne year after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in southern Arizona, his family said it believes that if a flawed gun-tracking operation run by federal ATF agents violated any laws, then “those responsible for Fast and Furious should be held criminally liable.”

The comments came Wednesday as a Border Patrol National Honor Guard held a brief ceremony at a cemetery in Flat Rock, Mich., where Terry was raised and is now buried. He was shot late on the night of Dec. 14 last year while his Border Patrol team was working a rugged canyon south of Tucson, and pronounced dead early the next morning. Two firearms recovered at the scene were traced to Operation Fast and Furious.

The operation was run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, part of the Department of Justice, and allowed illegal buyers to purchase firearms with the hope of tracking the weapons to Mexican cartel leaders. But authorities lost track of hundreds of guns, some of which also surfaced later at crime scenes in Mexico.

“We find it incomprehensible that members of ATF and DOJ would embark on such an egregious operation and then try to conceal the link between this failed investigation and Brian’s murder,” his family said in a statement. “Much to our dismay, no one in ATF or DOJ has come forward to accept responsibility for Operation Fast and Furious.”

Terry’s family continues to press for answers, and said, “We now believe that if it can be shown that laws were broken, then all those responsible for Fast and Furious should be held criminally liable.”

In an interview, family spokesman Robert Heyer was asked if the family supports efforts by congressional Republicans to force Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to resign.

“Somebody needs to take responsibility. I don’t know if that’s Holder,” Heyer said. “But there were individuals somewhere in DOJ and ATF that were making daily decisions and knew the risks associated with such a reckless plan. Those decision-makers are the folks that need to be held accountable immediately.”

Holder has insisted that neither he nor his Justice Department were aware of the gun-walking “tactics” in Fast and Furious. At his request, his inspector general is investigating the matter. One person has been charged in the homicide. But the criminal case remains sealed, and it's unclear whether others have been arrested.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that he was “adamantly rejecting the suggestion that the FBI would in any way cover up what happened in the tragic killing of Brian Terry.” He testified that there was no third weapon found at the scene, contrary to suggestions by many critics that the FBI is withholding evidence.

“Every available necessary resource has been put on” the case, Mueller said, “and similar investigations where we lose one of our own.”


Marine Corps apologizes for Purple Heart Christmas mixup

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Army identifies the 4 victims of Washington's double helicopter crash

-- Richard A. Serrano in Washington, D.C.

Photo: A Jan. 25 photo shows part of a cache of seized weapons displayed at a news conference in Phoenix. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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