Zeta leader's 'death' raises doubts after corpse vanishes

Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano

Credit: AP Photo/Mexico's Attorney General

An undated file photo from the Mexico's Attorney General's Office shows alleged Zeta drug cartel leader and founder Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano in an undisclosed location. (AP Photo/Mexico's Attorney General's Office, file)




Posted on October 9, 2012 at 7:51 PM

EL PASO — Along the border, news that the leader of Zetas drug cartel had died in a shootout with Mexican Marines spread quickly — and so did the questions.

"I don’t know... I have doubts," said Teresa Galvan from the border state of Coahuila, where the Navy reported Marines had killed Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano after he left a baseball game Sunday afternoon.

"I’d have to see it to believe it," said Lorenzo Garcia of El Paso.

That suspicion deepened after authorities reported gunmen snatched Lazcano’s body from a funeral home hours after the Navy issued a statement saying it was waiting for "forensic tests" to identify the corpse.

Authorities later said fingerprints and photographs confirmed it was Lazcano. But it’s not clear why Marines left the body of the Zeta leader at a funeral home with minimal security.

"The average person in Mexico doesn’t trust the authorities,” said Howard Campbell, University of Texas El Paso professor and author of "Drug War Zone." "They don’t trust their newspapers, the mass media, so they invent their own conspiracy theories. And that’s the sad thing about the recent events in Mexico... we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Lazcano was the last survivor of the original Zetas — Special Forces soldiers who deserted to work as enforcers for the Gulf cartel.

The Zetas then broke away and became one of the most brutal criminal organizations in Mexico, earning a reputation as a gang of thugs known for beheadings and displaying mutilated bodies in public places.

The Zetas are so feared in some regions of northern Mexico near the border, people only refer to the group as “Los de la ultima letra” — those of the last letter.

The Zetas have been locked in a bloody turf war with the Gulf cartel over smuggling routes that lead to Texas.

Lazcano — nicknamed “El Verdugo” or "The Executioner" — is wanted in the U.S., where the Drug Enforcement Administration had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction.

The DEA description lists him as 5’-8" tall — several inches taller than the body identified by Mexican authorities.

U.S. officials have not commented on the Zeta leader’s death. In recent weeks, the Mexican Marines have captured several of the cartel’s leaders.

“I see they’re killing, catching and jailing them, but it never ends," said Lorenzo Garcia as he crossed the border into Juarez.

He and others along the U.S.-Mexico frontier are bracing for more bloodshed as cartels battle for supremacy.

“When they catch one, five more are ready to take over," Garcia said.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com