Last updated: October 9, 2012 7:33 pm

Mexico declares death of drug cartel boss

Mexican security forces on Tuesday declared that a person they killed in a shoot-out in the northern state of Coahuila on Sunday appeared to be one of the country’s most-wanted and most-violent drug cartel leaders.

But in a twist worthy of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, officials admitted that the body thought to belong to Heriberto Lazcano, suspected head of the notorious Zetas drug cartel, was stolen early on Monday after gunmen raided the funeral home where the body was being stored.

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The disappearance of the body will doubtless heap suspicion and intrigue on what nevertheless appears to be the most significant victory to date in the government’s six-year war against organised crime.

Security experts said the death of the Zetas’ founder and leader would leave the group, one of the country’s largest criminal organisations, badly weakened – not least because it follows the capture of several suspected high-ranking Zetas members recently.

“This leaves the Zetas trapped in a downward spiral in terms of their organisational structure,” said Alejandro Hope, a security-policy analyst at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think-tank.

In a statement on Tuesday, before news broke of the body’s disappearance, marines said fingerprints taken from the corpse matched those of Lazcano, often known as “the executioner” for his merciless style. They also said photographs matched those of the suspected drug lord – though the statement added that authorities were continuing with tests.

The outgoing administration of the centre-right president, Felipe Calderón, has set its sights on Lazcano and his organisation since it first made combating organised crime a priority in December 2006. Lazcano is understood to have brought military-style discipline and training to Mexico’s drugs gangs for the first time.

Having enlisted in the Mexican army while still a teenager, he later joined a special forces unit before defecting with a handful of fellow elite soldiers to become enforcers for the Gulf cartel, one of the country’s largest drug-smuggling organisations.

Since 2010, and following a fallout with his Gulf cartel employers, Lazcano is suspected of having waged a campaign of terror and bloodshed across Mexico as part of an attempt by the Zetas to win market share from competing organisations.

Among other things, the Zetas initiated the now-common practice of decapitating their victims. They are also thought to have been responsible for dozens of massacres, including the killing in 2010 of 72 undocumented migrants, who were believed to be heading north in search of work in the US.

More than 55,000 people have died in drug-related violence during the past six years, and opinion polls show that public security has risen to the top of Mexicans’ principal concerns.

Mr Hope of Imco says it is likely that the Zetas’ terror campaign prompted the government to reorient its security strategy over the past year to focus harder on combating the group.

That may explain the arrest of several high-ranking Zetas members in recent weeks. On the weekend, security forces captured Salvador Alfonso Martínez Escobedo, a suspected regional Zeta leader. Better known by his alias “the squirrel”, Mr Martínez Escobedo is thought to be responsible for hundreds of murders.

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