Leader of Mexico’s Zetas drug gang proves elusive even in death


MEXICO CITY — He was called the Executioner, a founding member and top leader of the vicious Zetas paramilitary force.

On Tuesday, the Mexican navy said fingerprints confirmed that it had killed him in a shootout last weekend. But before the government could even begin to celebrate such an important victory in its battle against the drug cartels, officials learned that an armed gang had invaded a funeral home and snatched the body.

The embarrassing turn of events left a raft of unanswered questions, including: How do you identify a body if there is no body?

Authorities said the ruthless drug chieftain, Heriberto Lazcano, was slain Sunday by navy special forces outside a baseball stadium near the town of Progreso in Coahuila state. Apparently unaware of whom they had killed, they turned the body over to state investigators, who took the prints, snapped photographs and then sent the body to a funeral parlor.

About 1 a.m. Monday, armed commandos, “faces covered and well-guarded,” burst into the mortuary, overpowered employees and made off with the remains and those of a gunman who was also killed, Coahuila state prosecutor Homero Ramos said.

Both the navy and Coahuila state prosecutors said Lazcano was identified by his fingerprints, which were presumably on file because he once served in an elite unit of the Mexican army, before he went on to join and build up the Zetas. He also spent time in jail early in his career, and prints may have been taken then.

But the loss of the body will fuel suspicion among cynical Mexicans about the true identity of the corpse and the circumstances of the slaying, not to mention the sloppiness of letting the remains be stolen.

The elimination of the head of one of the world’s bloodiest drug cartels would be a major victory for the government of President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office in less than eight weeks and who nearly six years ago launched a military-led offensive against drug-trafficking networks. Lazcano is probably the most notorious figure said to be felled in that fight, and his demise could harm the Zetas’ ability to sow terror.

Lazcano’s death would also mark the latest in a string of successes by Mexico’s military against the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, groups that have fought brutally for control of drug-smuggling routes, local markets and territory in northeastern and central Mexico.

The Zetas were formed by Gulf cartel leaders as their muscle. But the Zetas eventually split from the cartel and surpassed it, spreading its operations through southern Mexico and Central America and exhibiting levels of brutality not previously seen with such regularity. Beheadings, massacres of migrants, torture and dismembering of live victims all became routine parts of the Zetas repertoire.

Calderon, speaking Tuesday afternoon during the dedication of a prison in Guanajuato, congratulated the navy for killing “one of the most important and most dangerous” fugitives in Mexico.

The Zetas, Calderon said, “are responsible for innumerable crimes of high impact, as well as acts of extreme violence that many of the country’s communities are suffering.”

Drug gangs often attempt to recover the bodies of fallen comrades, and that code is especially strong among the Zetas, who were founded by military men and former soldiers like Lazcano. The Zetas also have been responsible for the largest prison breaks in recent Mexican history, freeing hundreds of their cohorts in brazen operations often undertaken with the complicity of guards and wardens.

In this case, the two bodies were loaded into a hearse and the funeral director was forced to drive them away, state prosecutor Ramos said at a news briefing. (The funeral director survived to report the incident.)

Ramos did not take questions or offer further details.

Naval officials said Lazcano was shot to death after attacking a special forces patrol with grenades and gunfire. A rocket launcher was found in his possession, the navy said.

In addition to citing the fingerprints as proof of identity, the navy released two photos of the dead man and said they appeared to match the physical traits of Lazcano, who would be 36 or 37.

Armed with U.S. intelligence and taking advantage of an internal split in the Zetas, Mexican authorities — most frequently naval forces — have arrested several key commanders in the last year, including the group’s No. 3 leader on Sept. 27. Each capture may have led to a series of betrayals facilitating the next one. Now only Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, whose reputation is as chilling as that of Lazcano, remains in the top tier.

“Even if [Lazcano’s] death were not confirmed, it seems the Zetas, as a coherent and identifiable group, have entered into a death spiral,” analyst Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence officer, said Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean less violence, he cautioned, because splintered Zeta groups with weaker central leadership could go on rampages.

The particular skill that Lazcano, who served in the army from 1991 to 1998, brought to the enterprise was his ability to combine military precision with stone-hearted criminality. His legacy is the Zetas pattern of moving into a region of Mexico, finding out who is in charge of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking and other rackets, and killing them to take over the businesses. The rest of the locals were told to join or die, said Samuel Gonzalez, an expert on Mexican crime and a former federal drug prosecutor.

“If the other Zetas who are left cannot reproduce and sustain that, you could see violence vary, maybe even diminish,” he said. “That’s the big question.”

Additional scenarios include Zetas dissolving into smaller bands of predatory thugs roving the country or joining existing cartels.

Journalists in Coahuila say it was an open secret that Lazcano had moved into the state a couple of years ago. That, and the ease with which the body was taken, also point to the level of corruption and cartel infiltration in the large, prosperous border state, which until recently was governed by a scandal-plagued national leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto.

Humberto Moreira resigned the governorship of Coahuila early last year to become the PRI’s national president. (His brother is governor now.) Controversy forced him from the PRI post in December, after it was revealed that he had saddled the state with $3 billion in debts, at least partly due to loans allegedly sought using falsified documents.

Recent events suggest Moreira also allowed the Zetas to expand in the state during his administration and failed to vet the local police force. Moreira’s son was killed last week, allegedly by local police commanders working for the group.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.