MEXICO CITY — The brutal boss of the Los Zetas crime gang that has terrorized northern and central Mexico for years has met a fitting end, the Mexican navy said Tuesday: Slain in a gunfight with authorities on Sunday, then his body snatched by gunmen from the funeral home where it had been taken.
The vanished body made it impossible to offer foolproof identification that the slain man was Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a 37-year-old former army special forces commando who turned Los Zetas into Mexico’s most feared cartel. But Mexico’s navy said the fingerprints of one of two men killed in a firefight over the weekend matched those of the Los Zetas founder.
The death struck a formidable blow to organized crime in the waning months of President Felipe Calderon’s term in office, which had been characterized by spiraling drug violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Calderon hailed the announcement, saying that evidence “clearly indicates” that the Zetas kingpin “was cut down resisting the authorities.”
Authorities said a naval patrol encountered Lazcano around 1:30 p.m. Sunday in Progreso in Coahuila state, a town of about 3,000 about 70 miles from the Texas border, though details of exactly what took place were still being sorted out Tuesday.
Mexico City’s El Universal said Lazcano was watching a baseball game when the naval patrol spotted him. Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos said only that the firefight took place near the town’s baseball field and that one of the men, identified as Manuel Alberto Rodriguez, 44, was killed near a vehicle, while the man identified as Lazcano ran across a field, firing grenades from an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a grenade launcher.
Marines killed him from a distance of about 300 yards, Ramos added.
The navy issued two photos of the dead man thought to be the Zetas chief. One showed him open-mouthed on a coroner’s slab. The other showed a body clad in a black shirt, the head resting on a thick book.
“The analysis of the photos of the slain criminal attached to this communique show that the physical traits match those of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano,” the navy said.
It added that prints of the corpse’s thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand matched those on record for Lazcano.
Because Progreso has no coroner’s office, the corpses were taken to a funeral home in nearby Sabinas, west of Nuevo Laredo, where authorities took photos and fingerprints, Ramos said.
In a move that may indicate gangsters wanted to give Lazcano a sendoff befitting a major underworld don, heavily armed men wearing masks burst into the Garcia funeral home around 1:30 a.m. Monday and hauled off the bodies, he said.
The Milenio television network said photos of the corpse thought to belong to Lazcano were being shown to jailed Zetas commanders to provide further proof of identity.
The slaying of Lazcano would mark a watershed in Mexico’s fight against organized crime, a signal that the state can overcome what is widely seen as the most powerful, brutal and swaggering of the country’s underworld groups whose use of extreme violence plunge major swaths of the nation into terror.
As founder and head of Los Zetas, Lazcano was a near mythical figure, eclipsed only by the chief of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who remains at large and whom U.S. authorities consider the world’s most wanted drug trafficker.
Following a drug trafficking indictment in 2008, the U.S. government slapped a $5 million reward on the head of Lazcano. His U.S. rap sheet describes him as 180 pounds, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with the clean-cut look of a young professional.
The U.S. indictment says Lazcano’s group “controls hundreds of miles of Mexican territory,” portraying him as a rogue criminal mandarin.
Lazcano joined the army at age 17 and was a member of a special forces paratrooper unit set up to fight drug cartels. After leaving the army in 1998, he and some 30 fellow commandos, some of them deserters, jumped to the dark side to work for the Gulf Cartel.
Based in Matamoros, the gritty city across from Brownsville, Texas, the Gulf Cartel at the time was one of the nation’s biggest drug gangs. Lazcano and the others served as enforcers, calling themselves Los Zetas. As those above him got bumped off, Lazcano moved up, earning the nickname “El Verdugo,” or The Executioner, for his brutality. Another nickname was “Licenciado,” a title of respect for university graduates.
In 2010, amid reports of betrayals, Los Zetas broke off from the Gulf Cartel and launched a blitzkrieg on Mexico, spreading from the northeast, past the industrial hub of Monterrey, into central Mexico and to the Yucatan Peninsula, setting up a new model of criminal enterprise based partly on terror.
Rather than quietly paying off authorities, as other cartels traditionally did, Zetas cells beheaded their foes, often hanging their bodies from bridges. They operated in a loose hierarchy, spreading from cocaine trafficking into extortion, kidnapping, migrant trafficking and counterfeiting.
Slowing the frenzied crime wave became a major goal of the Calderon administration, which enlisted help from the United States. The U.S. began providing intelligence and support to Mexico’s navy, considered the most professional and trustworthy of Mexico’s security and police forces.
Those alliances began to pay off in the past month with a series of blows that struck both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
In a major strike to the Gulf Cartel, a naval unit Sept. 12 captured the group’s leader, Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla, a burly, mustachioed man.
Two weeks later, a separate naval unit trapped Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a Zetas underling to Lazcano known as El Taliban, who ran criminal operations for the group in Coahuila, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi states.
Capturing another Zetas leader, naval commandos on Monday marched Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo before snapping press cameras. Martinez, known as “Squirrel,” was also a senior operative.
“It seems to me that Los Zetas, as a coherent and identifiable crime group, have entered into a death spiral,” Alejandro Hope, a Princeton-trained security analyst, wrote on the Animal Politico website early Tuesday.
A series of earlier arrests, followed by the spate over the past month, began to unravel the group. Hope said the blows might not end violence in Mexico’s northeast corridor because cells without hierarchical control will fight for turf. But he said no group would hold territory in a dominant way.
Moreover, by showing they can get the upper hand against the most swaggering and brutal of Mexico’s crime groups, authorities have reasserted the power of the state.
“If Los Zetas couldn’t last, no organization can last,” Hope wrote, adding that he expects the government to trumpet that message. “Those who flaunt their brutal violence, attacking people without limits, will become a priority target.”
Lazcano may have had a hunch that his life wouldn’t last much longer. Earlier this year, laborers built an elaborate mausoleum in Lazcano’s hometown, Pachuca in Hidalgo state. The mausoleum is the size of a small chapel. Until now, the mausoleum in the San Francisco cemetery has remained empty. But it is widely believed Lazcano prepared it as his final resting place.