Death of Mexican drug cartel boss confirmed

Mexican navy says fingerprints from body of man shot near US border match those in records for drug cartel leader

Fingerprints confirm that cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a shootout with marines in a state on the border with the Texas, the Mexican navy has said.

The navy said that fingerprints taken from the body of a man shot on Sunday in Coahuila state were entered into a forensic database and matched existing records for Lazcano. It also says photographs of the body appear to match too.

The statement refers to reports in several Mexican newspapers that cite unnamed sources as saying that the body has since disappeared. The statement says only that it gave the body to local authorities.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency said it was still awaiting confirmation of that Lazcano had been killed.

His death is one of the most significant victories in Mexico's militarised battle with organised crime two months before the man who expanded it, President Felipe Calderón, leaves office. Lazcano, and army special forces deserter, was credited with bringing military tactics and training to the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, then splitting from his former bosses and turning the Zetas into one of the country's two most potent cartels.

The Zetas have been responsible for headline-grabbing atrocities. Its activities stretch along the US border and at least as far south as Guatemala.

The cartel was linked to the murder of the nephew of the Coahuila governor last week, which prompted the federal government to dispatch additional troops, police and investigators to the state.

Lazcano's death may benefit Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Zetas' main rival, the Sinaloa cartel. The two cartels have waged vicious turf war along the US border and in other parts of Mexico.

The Mexican authorities have announced a string of arrests of high-profile Zetas members in recent months. These arrests have often lead authorities to higher-ranking figures in the cartel.

The Zetas, which Lazcano helped found with other deserters from an elite army unit, have carried out some of Mexico's bloodiest massacres, biggest prison breaks and fiercest attacks on authorities.

Lazcano, who is also known as El Verdugo (the Executioner), is suspected in hundreds of killings, including the 2004 assassination of Francisco Ortiz Franco, co-editor of Zeta, a weekly newspaper in Tijuana that often reported on drug trafficking.

The US has offered a $5m reward and Mexico an additional $2.3m for information leading to Lazcano's arrest.

He was killed in Progreso, a rural area about 80 miles (125km) west of the US border.

The navy said it received complaints about armed men in the area and sent a patrol to check. Gunmen threw grenades at the patrol from a moving vehicle, wounding one of the marines.

Two gunmen were killed in the ensuing shootout, the navy said. In their vehicle, authorities found a grenade launcher, 12 grenades, what appeared to be rocket propelled grenade launcher and two rifles.

Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas recruited more hitmen, many of them former Mexican soldiers, and hired "kaibiles", Guatemalan soldiers trained in counterinsurgency. The Zetas were in charge of protecting the Gulf cartel's drug shipments. The Zetas finally split from their former bosses in 2010 and have since been fighting a vicious battle for control of the drug business in north-east Mexico, the traditional home base of the Gulf cartel. The result has been a surge of drug-related killings.

Lazcano "is credited with strengthening the organization … he created a new structure of regional cells that specialise in specific crimes", Mexican federal prosecutors say in their profile of him.

The Zetas also earned notoriety for brutality by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in Acapulco. The heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed "Z" that said: "So that you learn to respect."

Even with the death of Lazcano, the Zetas apparently would be run by Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, who has a reputation for being even more brutal than his late boss. Officials say Treviño Morales, also known as "Z40", has taken on a greater leadership role and has even been reported to have replaced Lazcano as operational chief.

The report of Lazcano's death came just hours after the navy arrested a suspected Zetas regional leader accused of involvement in some of the country's most notorious crimes in recent years.

Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo was arrested on Saturday in Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. The official said Martinez is believed to have masterminded the massacre of 72 migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2010.

The man known as "Squirrel" also has been linked to the escape of 151 prisoners in 2010 from a jail in Nuevo Laredo, the recent flight of 131 prisoners in Piedras Negras and the killing of a US citizen, David Hartley, in 2010 on Falcon Lake, which straddles the US-Mexico border.

That death drew wide attention as it appeared Hartley and his wife, Tiffany, were on a personal trip when he was shot while boating on the lake.

The navy is also blaming Martinez for the killing of the Tamaulipas state police commander and chief investigator on the case, an attack that hampered the investigation.

The navy said Martinez is also a suspect in dozens of killings of people who were buried in mass graves at the same site of the 2010 massacre of migrants. Nearly 200 bodies were discovered in April 2011 in the town of San Fernando, close to the US border. Those two crimes have been the most fatalities since Mexico's federal government launched an armed offensive against drug traffickers in December 2006. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds