A major coup for Mexican authorities turned to embarrassment on Tuesday as it emerged that the body of the slain leader of the Zetas drug cartel had been stolen from a funeral parlor.
Heriberto Lazcano, described as ambitious and ruthless, was Mexico’s second most-wanted man and his killing was the Mexican government’s biggest blow against drug cartels since it deployed federal troops to fight them in 2006.
Lazcano’s corpse and that of another man were taken to a funeral home in the town of Sabinas in the northern state of Coahuila shortly after they were killed in a shootout on Sunday with Mexican Navy special forces.
However, a gang of heavily-armed men wearing face masks later entered the parlor and subdued the staff, Coahuila state prosecutor Homero Ramos said.
“They took the bodies, stuck them in a hearse and made the owner drive it off,” Ramos told reporters in Sabinas.
The Mexican Navy, which conducted the operation against the Zetas leader, said fingerprints and photographs had been used to identify the body as Lazcano’s before it was stolen.
“The facial features coincide with those of Heriberto Lazcano,” the navy said in a statement, adding that experts were still examining “information and samples taken during the autopsy.”
Mexican President Felipe Calderon praised the killing of Lazcano and called him “one of the biggest and most dangerous” drug lords in Mexico. He also confirmed reports that Lazcano was a Mexican Army deserter.
However, Calderon made no comment on the theft of his body.
Officials said Lazcano’s death had effectively closed the case on a shocking attack on a casino in August last year, in which 52 people died after attackers doused the place with petrol, set it ablaze and blocked the exits.
Lazcano pioneered and promoted the gruesome practice of decapitating members of rival gangs, said Ricardo Ravelo, an author who specializes in the cartels and has written a book about the Zetas.
Little is known about Lazcano’s personal life, except that he liked horse races and blond women.
In the city of Pachuca, capital of Hidalgo state, it is said he was an orphan who was adopted by a family in a poor neighborhood.
Protected witnesses have said that Lazcano would let captured rivals starve to death because he liked to watch the process or that he would let them be eaten by wild animals, Ravelo said.
Officials said Lazcano and another man, identified as Mario Alberto Rodriguez, were killed at a baseball field near the Coahuila town of Progreso when the van they were in came under fire from navy troops.
One man was behind the wheel when he was killed and the other was shot as he tried to flee, Ramos said, without giving further details.
Lazcano, aka “El Lazca,” was one of two main leaders of the divided Zetas cartel and one of Mexico’s most-wanted men, with a US$2.6 million reward on his head. The US had set its own award at US$5 million.
The Zetas are one of Mexico’s most powerful drug gangs alongside the Pacific region’s Sinaloa federation, led by fugitive billionaire Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Much of the northeast is in the clutches of the Zetas cartel, which was founded by former Mexican special forces soldiers who went rogue.
The commandos were originally hired as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, but turned on their employers and have fought them for control of lucrative drug routes to the US.
Mexican federal prosecutors have said Lazcano broke with the other Zetas leader, Miguel Trevino Morales, aka “Z-40,” leading to a schism in the cartel.
On Monday, Mexico announced another blow to the organization, with the arrest of a Zetas commander believed to have ordered the massacre of 72 illegal immigrants whose bodies were found in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in August 2010.
Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo was presented to the press by the Mexican Navy along with five alleged accomplices. They were captured on Saturday in Nuevo Laredo, a border city in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Known as “Comandante Ardilla,” Martinez is suspected of involvement in the murder of an American, David Hartley, in September 2010 and the killing of a police commander who was investigating the crime.
Martinez, who worked for Morales, is also accused of masterminding the escape of 141 inmates from a prison in Tamaulipas in December 2010 and another jailbreak last month by 131 inmates from a penitentiary in Coahuila.
He has also been linked to other mass graves found in Tamaulipas containing more than 200 bodies and to the executions of more than 50 people nationwide.
Coahuila is one of the border states at the epicenter of Mexico’s vicious drug war, which is estimated to have claimed some 60,000 lives since the launch of a military crackdown in 2006.