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Mexico confirms death of Zetas leader, but his body is snatched from funeral home

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times –

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican navy said Tuesday that fingerprint samples confirm that its forces had shot and killed the head of one of the world’s bloodiest drug cartels over the weekend.

But before the government could even begin to celebrate such an important victory, officials learned that an armed gang had invaded a funeral home and snatched the body identified as that of Herberto Lazcano, a founding member and top leader of the vicious Zetas paramilitary force.

The embarrassing turn of events left a raft of unanswered questions including: How do you identify a body if there is no body?

Authorities said the ruthless drug chieftain was slain by naval special forces Sunday outside a baseball stadium near the Coahuila town of Progreso. Apparently unaware of who they had killed, they turned the unidentified body over to state investigators who took the prints, shot photographs and then sent the body to a funeral parlor.

Around 1 a.m. on Monday, armed commandoes — “faces covered and well-guarded” — burst into the mortuary, overpowered staff and made off with the remains and those of a gunman killed with him, Coahuila state prosecutor Homero Ramos said.

Both the navy and Coahuila state prosecutors said Lazcano was identified based on his fingerprints, which were presumably on file because he once served in an elite unit of the Mexican army before going on to join and build up the Zetas. He also served time in jail at one point early in his career, and prints may have been taken then.

But the loss of the body will fuel suspicions among cynical Mexicans about the true identity of the corpse and the circumstances of the slaying — not to mention the sloppiness of allowing the remains to be stolen.

The elimination of Lazcano, alias The Executioner, would mark a major victory for the government of President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office in less than eight weeks and who nearly six years ago launched a military-led offensive against trafficking networks. Lazcano is probably the most notorious figure said to be felled in that fight and his demise could harm the Zetas’ ability to sow terror.

Lazcano’s demise would also mark the latest in a series of successes by Mexican military forces targeting the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, groups that have battled brutally for control of drug smuggling routes, local markets and territory in northeast and central Mexico.

The Zetas were originally formed by the Gulf leaders as their muscle. But the Zetas eventually split from the Gulf Cartel and surpassed it, spreading its operations through southern Mexico and Central America and exhibiting levels of grisly brutality not previously seen with such regularity. Beheadings, massacres of migrants, torture and dismembering of live victims — all these became routine parts of their repertoire.

Calderon, speaking Tuesday afternoon during the inauguration of a new prison in Guanajuato, congratulated the navy for killing “one of the most important and most dangerous” fugitive criminals in Mexico.

The Zetas, Calderon added, “are responsible for innumerable crimes of high impact, as well as acts of extreme violence that many of the country’s communities are suffering.”

Drug gangs often attempt to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades, and that code is especially strong among the Zetas, who were founded by military men and former soldiers like Lazcano. The Zetas also have been responsible for the largest prison breaks in recent Mexican history, freeing hundreds of their cohorts in brazen escapes that are often undertaken with the complicity of guards and wardens.

In this case, the bodies were loaded into a hearse and the funeral director was forced to drive them away, state prosecutor Ramos said in a brief appearance before journalists. (The funeral director survived to report the incident.)

Ramos did not take questions or offer further explanations.

Naval officials said Lazcano was shot to death after attacking a special forces patrol with grenades and gunfire. A rocket launcher was found in his possession, the Navy said.

In addition to the fingerprints as proof of identity, the Navy released two photos of the dead man and said they appeared to match the known physical traits of Lazcano, who would be 36 or 37.

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