The Mexican Navy said today that it had confirmed via fingerprints and photographs that the man killed by Marines in a Sunday shootout was Heriberto Lazcano, AKA The Executioner or "Z-3," the feared leader of Mexico's violent Zetas drug cartel.
"The photographic images of the criminal ... show that the physical features coincide with those of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano," said the Navy in a statement. The Navy released two pictures of a dead man in a black, dirt-covered shirt on an autopsy table who resembles known photos of Lazcano.
The Navy also said that three fingerprints taken from the right hand of the dead man matched Lazcano's prints in a database.
The body, however, has now gone missing from the funeral home where it was taken. According to Homer Ramos Gloria, the attorney general of Coahuila state, the bodies of Lazcano and a man who died with him were stolen by armed men a 2 a.m. Monday morning.
The 37-year-old Lazcano, a deserter from the Mexican special forces, helped found the Zetas as the security wing of the Gulf Cartel, then the dominant drug organization in eastern Mexico, more than a dozen years ago. Members took aliases that combined the letter Z with a number representing their rank. Lazcano became known as Z 3. Other nicknames included El Lazca and the Executioner.
The Zetas, who recruited from the ranks of the military and law enforcement in Mexico and Guatemala, quickly established a reputation for brutality. They massacred civilians and publicly displayed severed heads and corpses marked with Zs to intimidate rivals.
The Zetas eventually went into business for themselves, and now control the drug traffic in much of northern and eastern Mexico, fighting with the Sinaloa cartel for national dominance. Law enforcement officials, however, have said that in recent months a split had developed between Lazcano and fellow Zetas leader Miguel Trevino Morales, AKA Z 40 or El 40. According to some reports, Trevino, who has a more violent reputation than Lazcano, has seized control of the cartel.
George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary and the co-author of a new book about the Zetas, speculates that Trevino Morales may have shared information with U.S. authorities to get better treatment for his brother, who is in U.S. custody. He notes that Zetas operative "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero, who was captured by the Marines in September, has already accused "El 40" of betraying some of the Zetas' local bosses.
Grayson says that the apparent death of Lazcano benefits three parties: the Marines, who have scored a string of recent successes against kingpins; Trevino Morales, who emerges as the "uncontested" leader of the Zetas; and "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, the Zetas' main rival.
"The big winner is El Chapo," says Grayson, "whose primary goal is taking over Nuevo Laredo, the home base of 'El 40,' with the help of the Gulf Cartel." Grayson warns of increased violence as the Zetas battle the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel for control of the city.
Grayson also says this would not be the first time that the Zetas have liberated the body of a fallen comrade. In 2007, they smashed open a grave in Veracruz to recover the corpse of Roberto Carlos Carmona, who was shot to death during a fight over a horse race.
Mexican authorities said that Lazcano was killed on Sunday afternoon during a gunfight on a baseball field in Progreso, a town in Coahuila state 80 miles from the Texas border.
According to the Navy, a convoy of Marines was responding to reports of armed men when it came under attack. Men in a moving vehicle threw grenades at the Marines. The Marines returned fire, killing two suspects.
Officials later identified one of the bodies as Lazcano. Authorities say they found guns, ammunition, grenades, and a rocket launcher inside the vehicle.
The U.S. had offered $5 million for Lazcano's head, while the Mexican government had offered a $2.3 million reward of its own.
On Saturday, Mexicans Marines captured another Zetas leader named the Squirrel, who helped run the organization in three Mexican states bordering Texas. Officials have linked Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo to more than 200 deaths, including the murder of American jet skier David Hartley on a border lake in 2010, was arrested in Nuevo Laredo along with several other alleged Zetas soldiers.