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Top drug cartel leader in Mexico possibly killed in firefight, officials say

October 8, 2012 | 10:16 pm

Heriberto Lazcano

This story has been updated with additional information.

MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities said late Monday they may have killed the top leader of the notorious Zetas paramilitary force in a gun and grenade battle in the state of Coahuila, in what would be the most important blow to powerful drug cartels in the six-year government of President Felipe Calderon.

In a brief statement, the Mexican navy said there were "strong indications" that special forces had killed Heriberto Lazcano, maximum leader of the Zetas. He was one of two people killed in a skirmish with a marine patrol on Sunday near the town of Progreso, the navy said.

The marine patrol was responding to citizens' reports of armed individuals in the area when it came under gunfire and a barrage of grenades, the statement said. The patrol returned fire, killing two men. Initial forensic tests indicated one of the dead men was Lazcano, the navy said.

With Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of the vast Sinaloa cartel, Lazcano was at the top of Mexico's most-wanted list. Authorities offered a bounty of more than $2 million for his capture. The U.S. also offered a reward of $5 million.

Lazcano was a soldier in the Mexican army who quit in the late 1990s and was recruited as one of the original members of the Zetas, formed initially as the paramilitary force working on behalf of the Gulf cartel. Under Lazcano, the Zetas broke from the Gulf cartel nearly two years ago and rose to become the strongest criminal organization after the Sinaloa cartel.

Under Lazcano, the Zetas quickly branched out from drug-running to a large array of crimes including the trafficking of migrants and kidnapping. The Zetas have been locked in a deadly battle to wipe out the Gulf cartel and challenge Sinaloa as the groups vie to control northern and central Mexico.

[Updated at 10:50 p.m.: Nicknamed the Executioner, Lazcano is held responsible for some of the most grisly massacres and attacks in Mexico's drug-related history. In 2004, a crusading newsmagazine  coincidentally named Zeta, based in Tijuana, identified Lazcano as having been the triggerman in the slaying of an editor, Francisco Ortiz, in front of his two children. The folklore around Lazcano includes stories that he fed some of his victims to his collection of lions and tigers.

The navy said additional forensic tests would be conducted in the coming hours to confirm the dead man’s identity.

If it is Lazcano, his demise would represent an important victory in Calderon’s military-led offensive against drug cartels, launched shortly after he came to power in December 2006. The final months of his government -- he steps down Dec. 1 -- have seen a dramatic push that has led to the capture or killing of a number of top cartel capos, primarily from the Gulf and Zeta groups.

In most of the successful strikes, Mexican forces have worked with intelligence provided by U.S. agencies active in Mexico and especially in the northeast corridor that abuts Texas.]

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-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: This undated file photo from the Mexico attorney general's office website shows alleged Zetas drug cartel leader and founder Heriberto Lazcano in an undisclosed location. Credit: Associated Press

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