MEXICO CITY — One of Mexico’s most-wanted drug lords, who founded the super-violent Zetas criminal organization, was killed over the weekend in a firefight with marines, Mexico’s navy secretary said Tuesday.
A positive identification of Heriberto Lazcano, who was shot dead as he ran from pursuing troops, was made more difficult because armed assailants stole his body from a funeral home Sunday night, a state prosecutor said.
The corpse remains at large.
Homero Ramos, the top prosecutor in the border state of Coahuila, where Lazcano was killed, showed photographs purportedly depicting the outlaw’s pale, bloated, dead face and added that fingerprints of the deceased’s right thumb and forefinger supported the positive identification.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it was still awaiting confirmation that Lazcano is indeed dead.
The authorities have been wrong before. In a case that turned triumph into embarrassment, a man whom Mexican marines captured, paraded before cameras and described in June as a smuggling kingpin and son of Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman turned out not to be his son at all, but a used car salesman.
If it survives scrutiny, the death of Lazcano, also known as “El Verdugo,” or the Executioner, will be a major victory for outgoing President Felipe Calderon, who has made the capture and killing of top mafia bosses the main focus of Mexico’s five-year drug war.
But the fact that the drug lord’s body could be snatched by masked gunmen shows how far Mexico still has to go to control the lawlessness that has left more than 60,000 Mexicans dead as drugs continue to head north of the border.
Lazcano’s apparent death was applauded by U.S. law enforcement agents, who have provided intelligence on the whereabouts of top Zetas members and pushed Mexico to press its assault against one of the world’s most successful criminal organizations.
An especially cruel paramilitary cartel, the Zetas operate a diversified portfolio that includes not just drug trafficking but also extortion, kidnapping, video piracy and the theft of billions of dollars in oil and gas from Mexico’s state petroleum company. The Zetas have promoted their image as the most bloodthirsty cartel in Mexico by releasing videos on the Internet showing their members interrogating, torturing and beheading rivals with machetes and chain saws.
According to the Mexican navy, whose marines have been among the most effective in Calderon’s capture-or-kill strategy, Lazcano and a driver were spotted Sunday at a baseball game in the small town of Progreso, about 75 miles west of the Texas border city of Laredo.
The navy said its marines were acting on reports of armed men in the area and sent out a patrol. When the marines confronted Lazcano, it said, the Zetas opened fire and began tossing grenades at them.
According to the state prosecutor, Lazcano was shot while running from his disabled vehicle. The navy said its marines found rifles, a grenade launcher and a dozen grenades in the truck.
Lazcano was a former special forces soldier in the Mexican army, in an elite unit that originally was designed to confront drug traffickers. Lazcano and other special forces troops were recruited by the head of the powerful Gulf cartel, Osiel Cardenas, to serve as his bodyguards and act as enforcers and assassins.
A few years ago, Lazcano and his fellow Zetas declared their independence from the Gulf cartel and launched a turf war against their former masters — a battle that continues to this day and is responsible for much of the violence along the Texas-Mexico border.
Stretching from southern Texas to as far as the jungles of Guatemala and clandestine airstrips in Honduras, the Zetas organization is now powerful enough to challenge Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel for hegemony.
George Grayson, co-author of a new book on the Zetas titled “The Executioner’s Men,” said Lazcano’s death could help Guzman take over more territory.
Grayson also said that unlike in the early years, few of the new Zetas are trained military men. “The Zetas are like a civil service,” he said. “They have a line of replacements for cadres killed and captured. The problem is that the new plaza bosses are younger, less experienced in the use of weapons and more likely to use drugs and seek to earn their stripes through savagery.”
The Mexican marines have been hitting the Zetas hard in recent weeks, capturing a string of regional bosses.
Acting on U.S. intelligence, marines snatched Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as “El Taliban,” last month in San Luis Potosi.
Over the weekend, the marines arrested Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, a.k.a. the Squirrel, in Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo. Mexican officials say the Squirrel was the organizer behind the massacre of 72 migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2010.
He is also implicated by Mexican authorities in the killing in 2010 of David Hartley, a U.S. citizen who was shot in the head while jet-skiing with his wife on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
The death of Lazcano, while a coup for Calderon and the DEA, could end up having little impact, as an even more brutal leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, known as “Z 40,” is in line to take over the gang.