Mexico Navy, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — An army special forces deserter whose brutality and paramilitary tactics helped transform a small group of drug cartel enforcers into one of the world's most feared international criminal organizations was gunned down by Mexican marines outside a baseball stadium in a state on the border with Texas, officials said Tuesday.
Hours later, a group of armed men raided the funeral home where Heriberto Lazcano's body was lying, hijacked a hearse and disappeared into the night with the corpse of the man who led the Zetas in a reign of terror over swaths of Mexico running from the U.S. border south to Guatemala, officials said.
The theft of the body in the northern state of Coahuila added a bizarre and embarrassing twist to the take-down of the most significant drug lord since President Felipe Calderon launched his strategy targeting cartel leadership and released a list of the 37 most wanted in 2009. Calderon noted Tuesday that 25 on that list have been killed or arrested.
The body's disappearance demonstrated the unchecked control that drug gangs maintain over large parts of many Mexican states six years into a struggle that shows little sign of abating.
Independent analysts said they expected Lazcano's death to throw the Zetas into disarray, setting off a violent power struggle inside the cartel as its relatively autonomous local cells decide whether to ally with other cartels or align with the Zetas' remaining boss, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, a man considered even more ruthless and brutal than Lazcano.
The killing will also probably intensify the Zetas' war with the country's other dominant criminal organization, the Sinaloa cartel controlled by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
At the center of the two cartels' struggle is Nuevo Laredo, a violence-torn city across from Laredo, Texas. More freight crosses there than anywhere else along the U.S.-Mexican border, making it one of the most valuable smuggling routes in the world.
"There will be a shootout at the OK Corral over Nuevo Laredo," predicted 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."
Calderon stopped short of unreservedly declaring Lazcano dead, but he said evidence clearly indicated the Zetas founder had been slain.
The president also praised the marines, the security force responsible for most of the highest-profile take-downs of top level drug bosses in Mexico. Many of those operations were launched in cooperation with U.S. officials, who see the marines as more trustworthy and competent than other Mexican military and law enforcement agencies.
In an emailed statement, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said only: "We have seen reports of the possible death of Heriberto Lazcano. We are awaiting confirmation of those reports."
Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas carried out many of the most notorious crimes of Mexico's drug war, which had at least 47,500 deaths before the government stopped releasing official figures in September 2011.
Among atrocities the Zetas are blamed for are the massacre of 72 migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2010; the escape of 151 prisoners in 2010 from a jail in Nuevo Laredo; the recent flight of 131 prisoners in the city of Piedras Negras; and the killing of U.S. ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in 2011 and U.S. citizen David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Zetas are also believed to be behind the killings of hundreds of people who were buried in mass graves at the site of the 2010 massacre of migrants.
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