By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A suspected drug cartel figure accused of killing U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in a case tied to the government's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" gun-running sting was extradited from Mexico to Arizona to face murder charges, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Lionel Portillo-Meza was returned to the United States on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty in federal court on Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona, where he was ordered detained without bond, the prosecutors said.
He is accused of being one of five cartel gunmen who confronted Terry and three other Border Patrol agents on Dec. 14, 2010, in a shootout that left Terry dead in a rural area north of Nogales, Arizona.
Two weapons discovered at the murder scene were later tied to the bungled gun-running operation of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that embarrassed the Obama administration and strained relations with Mexico.
The botched sting operation, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011, was envisioned as a way to track weapons purchased by straw buyers with clean records in the Phoenix area to senior drug cartel members in Mexico.
In most cases, however, ATF agents failed to follow the guns beyond the initial buyers. And a number of firearms purchased in the operation were recovered from crime scenes in Mexico.
In 2012, Terry's parents filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against federal prosecutors and ATF agents alleging that they acted in violation of their own policies and that the so-called "Fast and Furious" sting negligently allowed weapons to be bought by violent criminals.
Terry's brother, Kent, told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday the family was happy that suspects in the case were being brought to justice.
"It won't bring Brian back to us, and (his death) could have been prevented," Kent Terry said. "They still have 2,00 weapons out there that they can't account for."
The U.S. Justice Department offered a $1 million reward in July 2012 for information leading to the arrest of Portillo-Meza and three other fugitives accused of the shooting at the time.
Portillo-Meza was captured in Mexico two months later, and a second suspect was arrested the following year later but remains in Mexico. Two others remain at large.
A fifth gunman captured after being wounded in the shootout was sentenced earlier this year to 30 years in federal prison.
A sixth defendant who was in custody at the time of Terry's slaying pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with the case and was sentenced to eight years in federal prison in January 2013, prosecutors said.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney)