MEXICO CITY – Mexican marines gunned down one of Mexico’s most feared drug lords outside a baseball game near the Texas border, then handed over the body to local authorities in a town where it was snatched by armed men in a pre-dawn raid on a funeral home, officials said Tuesday.
The theft of the body believed to belong to Zetas founding member Heriberto Lazcano adds a bizarre and embarrassing twist to one of the most significant victories in Mexico’s militarized battle with organized crime, two months before the man who sharply expanded it, President Felipe Calderon, leaves office.
Officials said that, with the body missing, the remaining evidence of Lazcano’s fall consists of three fingerprints and a few photos of the army special forces deserter whose brutal paramilitary tactics helped define the devastating six-year war among Mexico’s drug gangs and authorities.
Calderon said in a speech Tuesday that the evidence clearly indicated that Lazcano had been killed, and he praised the marines’ action, though the president stopped short of an unqualified declaration that the Zetas’ leader was dead.
Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos said two men were killed outside a baseball game in the town of Progreso on Sunday in a gunfight with Mexican marines, the force that has carried most of the recent high-profile operations against drug lords. Many of those operations were launched in cooperation with U.S. officials, who see the marines as more trustworthy and competent than other military and law-enforcement agencies.
Ramos and the Mexican navy said the fingerprints of one man matched the records of Lazcano. Early Monday morning, Ramos said, a group of armed men raided the funeral home where the bodies were kept, and forced the funeral director to drive the hearse with the corpses to another location.
He did not offer details.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said in an emailed statement that, “We have seen reports of the possible death of Heriberto Lazcano. We are awaiting confirmation of those reports.”
Lazcano, who is also known as “El Verdugo” (the Executioner), was credited with bringing military tactics and training to the enforcement arm of the once-powerful Gulf Cartel, then splitting from his former bosses and turning the Zetas into one of the country’s two most potent cartels, with a penchant for headline-grabbing atrocities and control of territory stretching along the U.S. border and at least as far south as Guatemala. The Zetas have carried out some of Mexico’s bloodiest massacres, biggest jail breaks and fiercest attacks on authorities.
Most recently, the cartel was linked to last week’s assassination of the nephew of the governor of Coahuila, a slaying that prompted the federal government to dispatch additional troops, federal police and criminal investigators to the state. Some local officials said they believed the killing may have been carried out by the Zetas’ other top leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, in revenge for the killing of his own nephew by an elite state police force the same day.
Grabbing the bodies of fallen accomplices is a trademark of the Zetas, who have retained some of the tactics and institutional culture of the military deserters who founded the group, said George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and co-author of “The Executioner’s Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs and the Shadow State They Created.”
“The Zetas take care of their dead,” he said. “El Lazca was special forces. There is an esprit de corps, like the Marines. They never leave a comrade behind.”
Mexican authorities have announced a string of arrests of high-profile Zetas figures in recent months, and have said they believe that a rift had emerged between Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a Zetas leader known as “El Taliban” nabbed by authorities last month and Trevino, a Zetas capo known as Z40 who has a reputation for being even more brutal. It was not clear which side Lazcano was on,
Grayson said he has heard that Trevino had been feeding information and cooperating with U.S. authorities because they’re holding his brother, who was recently arrested on charges of laundering money through horse-racing businesses in the U.S.
On Monday, the Mexican navy said it had arrested a regional leader for the Zetas, Salvador Alfonso Martinez, or “Squirrel,” and believed he was involved in the massacre of 72 migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2010; the escape of 151 prisoners in 2010 from a jail in the city of Nuevo Laredo; the recent flight of 131 prisoners in the city of Piedras Negras, and the killing of U.S. citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
The navy said Martinez was also a suspect in the killings of hundreds of people who were buried in mass graves at the same site of the 2010 massacre of migrants.
In late September, marines grabbed Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a Zetas leader known as “El Taliban,” and also recently caught the heads of the two main factions of the Gulf Cartel: Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez, and Mario Cardenas Guillen.
Those arrests and Lazcano’s death would help Mexico’s most-wanted man – and the Zetas’ bitterest enemy – Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who has been waging a vicious battle with the Zetas for territory along the U.S. border and other parts of Mexico.
Lazcano is suspected in hundreds of killings, including the June 2004 slaying of Francisco Ortiz Franco, a top editor of a crusading weekly newspaper in Tijuana that often reported on drug trafficking. Ortiz Franco was gunned down in front of his two young children as he left a clinic.
The United States has offered a $5 million reward and Mexico an additional $2.3 million for information leading to Lazcano’s arrest.
The Sunday shootout came in the rural area of Progreso, Coahuila, about 80 miles west of the Texas border, near Laredo.
The navy said it received complaints about armed men in the area and sent a patrol to check out the reports. Gunmen tossed grenades at the patrol from a moving vehicle, wounding one of the marines. His injuries were not life-threatening.
Two of the gunmen were killed in the ensuing shootout, the navy’s statement said. In the gunmen’s vehicle, authorities found a grenade launcher, 12 grenades and two rifles.
Under Lazcano’s leadership, the Zetas recruited more hit men, many of them former Mexican soldiers, and hired “kaibiles,” Guatemalan soldiers trained in counterinsurgency, transforming what had been a small group of assassins into a ruthless gang of enforcers for the Gulf cartel. The Zetas also were in charge of protecting the Gulf cartel’s drug shipments.
The Zetas finally split from their former bosses in 2010 and have since been fighting for control of the drug business in northeastern Mexico, the traditional home base of the Gulf cartel. The result has been a surge of drug-related killings.
Lazcano “is credited with strengthening the organization ... he created a new structure of regional cells that specialize in specific crimes,” Mexican federal prosecutors say in their profile of Lazcano.
The Zetas also earned notoriety for brutality by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in the resort city of Acapulco. The severed heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed “Z’’ that said: “So that you learn to respect.”