Mexican authorities said fingerprints confirmed that a suspect killed in a gun battle two days ago was the top leader of the Zetas cartel before his corpse was stolen from a funeral home by armed commandos.
Fugitive Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca,” was identified by fingerprints from one of the criminals killed in the fight in Coahuila state, which borders Texas, the Navy said today in an e-mail that included photos of the body. The Zetas have perpetrated some of the most violent crimes in Mexico’s six-year war against cartels, including the mass execution of 72 migrants and a casino fire that killed 52.
Authorities are looking for additional ways to corroborate Lazcano’s identity after the corpses of the two suspects killed in the shootout were stolen from a funeral home by armed commandos in a raid after midnight Oct. 8, said Homero Ramos, the state prosecutor.
“It’s a very bizarre situation, so it will raise questions in some people’s minds about what really happened,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. While a significant blow for the Zetas, Lazcano’s death may lead to more violence in the short-term as the remnants of the group “fight for their own survival and control,” he said.
Lazcano’s demise is a victory for beleaguered Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who first sent troops to fight drug gangs in his home state of Michoacan shortly after taking office in December 2006.
More than 56,000 people have died in the conflict, according to a count kept by Mexico City newspaper Milenio.
That’s led to a drop in Calderon’s approval rating to 46 percent in August, the lowest of his presidency and less than his three predecessors when they left office.
Calderon in a speech today in Guanajuato said that the Navy has clearly signaled that the slain suspect was in fact Lazcano, who he said had acted with “extreme violence” against the Mexican people.
The U.S. government indicted Lazcano in 2009 for drug trafficking, and American authorities had offered as much as $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
The Navy said Lazcano was born in 1975 and stood at just under 5 feet 3 inches. The U.S. State Department says on its website that his birthday was on Dec. 25, 1974, and registered his height at 5 feet 8 inches. Neither agency’s press office immediately returned a phone call seeking an explanation for the discrepancy.
The State Department is still awaiting confirmation of reports of Lazcano’s death, a press official said in an e-mail.
“If his death is confirmed, he’s the most important and most violent drug kingpin to have been captured or killed in Mexico,” Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Mexico City-based Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said by phone. “If there’s no body, even with proof from his DNA, the public will be skeptical that he was caught.”
Next in Line
Lazcano’s death leaves Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, known as Z 40, as the probable leader of the Zetas, Olson said. In June, Trevino and his brothers were among 14 people indicted by a federal grand jury in Texas with laundering drug proceeds through an operation that bought, bred and raced quarter horses in the U.S.
Ramos, the Coahuila prosecutor, said the two suspects were killed on Oct. 7 in the town of Progreso outside a baseball game. The Navy said marines opened fire after being attacked by grenades thrown from a moving truck.
The Zetas, who were created by the Gulf Cartel to fight rival gangs, broke away from their former bosses and have gained power even as the Gulf Cartel has been weakened by deaths and arrests.
In May, the Zetas were tied to the massacre of 49 people whose bodies were found dumped along a highway near Monterrey with their heads, hands and feet cut off.
A banner left behind attributed responsibility to the group. Zetas members were accused of burning down a Monterrey casino in August 2011, killing 52. The gang was also blamed for a mass grave with 72 bodies, believed to be undocumented migrants heading to the U.S., found near Texas in August 2010.
The Zetas evolved from a group of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces. In December, Mexico extradited an alleged Zetas member to the U.S. for the killing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata in San Luis Potosi state in February of last year.