Oct 9, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
MEXICO CITY — The Mexican Navy confirmed on Tuesday that it had killed Heriberto Lazcano, the founder and the principal leader of the Zetas, one of the most violent criminal gangs to terrorize the country in years, in a battle two days earlier.
But, in a confusing development, two Mexican newspapers reported that the corpse had suddenly gone missing.
The navy said in a statement on Monday night that in a battle the previous afternoon in Coahuila State in northern Mexico between marines and men armed with guns and grenades, two men were killed, one bearing “strong signs” of being Mr. Lazcano, known as El Lazca and the main leader of the Zetas.
On Tuesday, the navy said it had positively identified one of the men as Mr. Lazcano through fingerprint analysis. It did not identify the second man.
His death is likely to give President Felipe Calderón his biggest victory against drug and organized-crime groups, two months before he ends his six-year term with a legacy marked by an escalation of the battle against gangs and the brutal violence they have wrought.
In an odd twist, the two Mexican newspapers reported on Tuesday that Mr. Lazcano’s corpse had been taken away from a funeral home by armed people or family members.
Representatives of the funeral home would not comment on the reports. In a statement on Tuesday, the navy said it had turned Mr. Lazcano’s body over to a local prosecutor and would have no further comment.
The Zetas stand out among the country’s two or three largest criminal groups for their butchery, carrying out beheadings and other mutilations to intimidate enemies and murdering those who do not follow their orders, including migrants passing through their turf, mainly in northeastern Mexico.
They have staged some of the country’s most spectacular jailbreaks — they were said to be behind one last month in which scores of inmates walked out of a state prison — and the most brazen attacks on Mexican security forces.
Mr. Lazcano deserted more than a decade ago from an elite Mexican Army unit. Along with other former special forces operatives from Mexico and Guatemala, he founded, trained and recruited armed men to serve as enforcers for the powerful Gulf Cartel.
The Zetas split off on their own two years ago and have fought their former allies and the Sinaloa Cartel, run by the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, or Shorty, who is wanted as badly here as Osama bin Laden once was by the United States.
Lately, security analysts have reported that the Zetas themselves are fracturing into at least two groups, and Mr. Lazcano’s death, along with the recent captures of other top Zeta capos, will probably sow even more confusion and violence among the ranks. In the scramble, Zeta leaders are believed to be turning on one another through executions and providing tips to law enforcement. Another Mexican Navy operation against the Zetas on Sunday, in Nuevo Laredo, led to the capture of a man whom the authorities said was the gang’s regional leader in three border states.
Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant who closely tracks organized crime here, said it appeared that the Mexican government, frequently acting on intelligence provided by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, has been hitting the Zetas particularly hard and capitalizing on the divisions in the group.
He said there had been 17 major arrests of leaders of the group over the past year.
Mr. Lazcano, who is also known by the nickname the Executioner, had been wanted by American law enforcement on drug trafficking and related charges, with a $5 million reward on his head.
It was unclear, given Mr. Lazcano’s military service and notoriety, why the Mexican Navy did not have the means to make a positive identification before releasing its initial statement.
The marines are considered Mexico’s most professional force and have made some of the most significant captures and kills in the drug war. But they are also responsible for one of the bigger fiascos in Mr. Calderón’s term, when they falsely arrested a man in June who was presumed to be the son of Mr. Guzmán. Prosecutors later said it was not him.