MEXICO CITY (AP) - 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 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.