MEXICO CITY (AP) — The death of the founder and leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas cartel in a firefight with marines outside a baseball game near the Texas border was perhaps the biggest coup of President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs.
But triumph turned to embarrassment when authorities lost the body.
Officials still haven't found the remains of Heriberto Lazcano, which were snatched from a funeral home and whisked away by gunmen in a hijacked hearse hours after the Zetas strongman died in a hail of gunfire in the town of Progreso in Coahuila state.
Asked how the body could be stolen, Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire suggested Tuesday that there might have been a lack of coordination between the military and civilian authorities. Under Mexican law, military forces must turn evidence, bodies and suspects over to civilian prosecutors.
"We have to improve coordination, to avoid this type of incident," Poire said. "But there is no doubt about the identity of this person."
Authorities said that assurance was based on fingerprints and photos taken while they still had the body. The navy released two photos showing the puffy, slack face of a corpse whose features, particularly his flaring nostrils, appeared to match the few known photos of Lazcano.
The fallen capo was an army special forces deserter whose brutality and paramilitary tactics transformed a small group of drug cartel enforcers into one of the world's most feared international criminal organizations. Analysts say his death could set off a power struggle inside the Zetas as its relatively autonomous local cells decide whether to align with its remaining boss, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, a man considered even more ruthless and brutal than Lazcano.
The killing is also expected to 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, who leaves office in two months with the six-year-long war on drug the signature of his presidency, stopped short of unreservedly declaring Lazcano dead, but said evidence clearly indicated the Zetas founder had been slain. He proudly proclaimed that 25 people on a 2009 list of Mexico's 37 most wanted drug lords have now been killed or arrested.
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."
But the body's disappearance demonstrated the unchecked control that drug gangs maintain over large swaths of many Mexican states six years into a struggle that shows little sign of abating.
Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos said that around 1 p.m. Sunday outside a baseball stadium in Progreso, marines spotted a suspicious vehicle that had previously been seen with armed men inside.
The marines ordered the vehicle to stop and the men inside opened fire, setting off a gunbattle. The driver was killed in the vehicle. The other man fled and was shot approximately 900 feet away, dropping an AR-15 assault rifle with an attached grenade launcher, Ramos said.
Officials also found a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with two projectiles, two fragmentation grenades and a variety of firearms in the vehicle, Ramos said.
One man's driver license identified him as a 44-year-old resident of the nearby city of Sabinas. The other body had no ID. The bodies were taken to a funeral home in Sabinas and investigators took their fingerprints and photographs, officials said.
Early Monday morning, Ramos said, a group of armed men raided the funeral home and forced the director to drive the hearse with the corpses to another location. He did not offer further details.
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