October 10, 2012 in Nation/World

Cartel leader’s body stolen from mortuary

Disappearance fuels suspicions in Mexico
Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times

(Full-size photo)

‘Never leave a comrade behind’

Mexican 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 Herberto Lazcano.

“The Zetas take care of their dead,” said 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.” “El Lazca was special forces. There is an esprit de corps, like the Marines. They never leave a comrade behind.”

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.

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.

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