MEXICO CITY -- The body of the man identified by Mexican authorities as the top leader of the vicious Zetas paramilitary cartel was stolen from a funeral home by an armed commando unit, officials said Tuesday.
At the same time that the Mexican navy confirmed the identity of Heriberto Lazcano, alias The Executioner, based on fingerprints, local officials in Coahuila state acknowledged the body was missing. Lazcano was slain in the northern Mexican state on Sunday.
"The owner of the Garcia funeral home called us at 8:05 a.m. [Monday] to say that at about 1 or 1:30 a.m. an armed commando, faces covered and well-guarded, showed up, overpowered the personnel and took away the bodies in a hearse from the funeral home, forcing the owner to drive it," Coahuila state prosecutor Homero Ramos said in a brief appearance before journalists.
The remarkable turn of events left a raft of unanswered questions. What was the body of one of the most notorious drug cartel chieftains doing unguarded in a funeral home less than 24 hours after his death? How can authorities definitively identify the body if there is no body?
Ramos did not take questions. It may be that no one realized the dead man was Lazcano when he was taken to the funeral home, which is apparently where the autopsy and other forensic tests were conducted.
The elimination of Lazcano, a founding member and top leader of one of the world's bloodiest drug cartels, should be 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 the most important figure felled in that fight.
Officials suggested they had harvested sufficient evidence from the body to make the ID. But the loss of the corpse will fuel suspicions among cynical Mexicans about the true identity and circumstances of the slaying -- not to mention the sloppiness of letting the body be stolen.
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. One other man with him was also killed.
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. In addition, 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.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: This photo released by Mexico's navy on Tuesday allegedly shows the body of Zeta drug cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano while in the possession of Mexico's Medical Forensic Service. Credit: Associated Press / Mexican navy