MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican Navy says it is "100% certain" that it was Heriberto Lazcano, notorious leader of the notorious Zeta paramilitary cartel, who was killed in a shootout with marines over the weekend.
But try telling that to the average Mexican.
Ever skeptical, and distrustful of governments that historically concealed the truth, Mexicans on Wednesday were debating whether the corpse really was the man known as "The Executioner," expressing lots of doubt and asking many questions.
Authorities did not help their credibility, of course, when they managed to lose the body.
“In Mexico, we can believe in chupacabras [a mythical blood-sucking monster], in UFOs and even in [cult favorite] Saint Death,” Maria Olmos, a secretary, said as she worked out Wednesday morning in the gym, which was abuzz with theories about Lazcano. “But we will never believe what the authorities tell us.”
“Maybe they threw his body in the Rio Bravo, imitating what the U.S. did with Osama [bin Laden],” a man identifying himself as Jose Luis Morales said via Twitter.
Authorities say an armed gang broke into the funeral parlor where Lazcano's remains had been taken, grabbed the body and drove away with it in a hearse.
If official sources are to be believed, neither the naval special forces nor the local investigators had a clue they were in possession of such a high-value target, which explains why the body was left unguarded in a funeral home.
In fact, naval spokesman Jose Luis Vergara told the Televisa broadcaster Wednesday that it was the midnight body-snatching raid that "raised a flag that we might be dealing with an important person."
Later, after the body was gone, fingerprints that had been taken earlier were matched to samples on file for Lazcano. The navy also released two pictures of the dead man to try to convince the public. But many Mexicans were having none of it.
“That dead guy doesn’t even look very dead,” one listener told the Radio Formula network.
Because there has long been a paucity of justice, accountability and reliable investigation of crimes, many Mexicans have an automatic default position of rejecting anything officials say. Airplane crashes that kill important politicians and are ruled accidents just can’t be accidents. Elections, whatever the margin of victory, can’t possibly be clean. Reality is flexible, truth negotiable.
And so, Vergara spent much of Wednesday fielding a barrage of questions from somewhat incredulous reporters.
According to the navy, it was a regular military patrol responding to an anonymous complaint about armed people at a baseball game that stumbled on the man who would eventually be identified as Lazcano. He was accompanied by two bodyguards as they left the stadium near the town of Progreso in Coahuila state. Lazcano and his associates opened fire on the marines, who returned fire, killing two. One man escaped.
Why would Lazcano, one of the most feared and most-wanted criminals in Mexico, with multimillion-dollar bounties on his head, be moving around so casually and without more protection?
Vergara said cartel capos are adopting “more low-profile” movements to avoid attracting the attention of widely deployed army, naval and police forces.
The navy said a rocket launcher was found in Lazcano’s vehicle along with grenades and other weapons. Didn’t that kind of weaponry clue investigators that he was not the average crook?
“These days,” Vergara said, “that’s become normal.”
Why was the height given of the corpse nearly 20 centimeters shorter than the height on record for Lazcano? Vergara said the one on record came from “intelligence,” by which he meant, in this case, guesses.
“It would be great if we could call up the criminals and say, how much do you weigh? How tall are you?” he told MVS radio.
The navy and local officials in Coahuila also did a fair amount of finger-pointing regarding who was to blame for losing the body.
Vergara said his men, after the gunbattle midday Sunday, waited nearly six hours outside the ballpark for the local investigators to show up. The military is not supposed to move bodies and has been scolded for tampering with crime scenes.
Once the forensic team and local prosecutors picked up the two bodies and took fingerprints and pictures, they deposited them in the Garcia Funeral Home. It was about midnight, and they left. About an hour later, officials said, the gunmen invaded the funeral home and made off with the corpses.
Only the next afternoon -- Monday -- were the photos and fingerprints matched to Lazcano, Vergara said. Late Monday, the navy put out a vague statement of “strong indications” that the dead man was Lazcano. The navy finally confirmed the identification Tuesday, even as other officials acknowledged that the bodies had been missing for more than 24 hours.
“Any way you look at it,” author and editor Jorge Zepeda Patterson wrote on his news website, “this was scandalous.”
Meanwhile, many eyes were on the chapel that Lazcano built a few years back in his native Hidalgo, reportedly at the request of his mother, and the fancy mausoleum he added later. Maybe the body will turn up there.
If it's really him.
-- Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez
Photo: The Mexican navy's handout is a composite of pictures showing the body of Heriberto Lazcano and much-earlier mug shots. Credit: Mexican Navy