Let’s say that Mexico’s Marines, as the country’s Navy insists, did kill Heriberto Lazcano, leader of the infamously bloodthirsty drug gang known as the Zetas, in a shootout 80 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday. And let’s forget for a moment that those same Marines, after taking pictures and fingerprints from the corpse of one of the western hemisphere’s most wanted criminals, somehow let the body lie unguarded in a local funeral home, where heavily armed thugs stole it away early Monday morning.
What we’ve then got is the most important takedown of a Mexican kingpin since the nation’s drug violence began spiraling out of control six years ago, leading to more than 50,000 people dead today. Lazcano, 37, aka El Verdugo, or The Executioner, was arguably most responsible for that awful carnage, and therefore just as valuable a target in Mexico’s endless drug war as top drug lord Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, who is still at large. If Lazcano’s removal means a weakening of the Zetas—which is hardly a certainty in these cases, but still a possibility—it could mean a reduction in Mexico’s epic criminal bloodshed. And that matters even more than stemming the epic flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S.
But there’s a problem muffling the would-be celebration: the bungled handling of the body. It’s as if the U.S. Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden and then let his remains get swiped. The Marines have been one of Mexico’s few effective drug war forces. But, fairly or not, the lost corpse undermines the credibility of the claim that they killed Lazcano. It forces the public to take the government’s word that it positively identified “El Lazca,” as he was also called, via fingerprints taken shortly after his death in the rural town of Progreso, in the border state of Coahuila. (The Navy, which includes the Marines, says those prints were matched with those from Lazcano’s days in the Mexican Army.) Skepticism will also be heightened by the fact that this is the second such embarrassment this year: In June, Marines triumphantly arrested a man they said was Guzmán’s son, also a wanted kingpin, only to admit later that they’d nabbed the wrong man.
Even Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who leaves office on Dec. 1 amid criticism that his military offensive against the drug cartels has largely failed, was relatively subdued on Tuesday after the Navy confirmed Lazcano’s demise. “Clear indications are that [Lazcano] was gunned down resisting authorities” was all he could muster. Another awkward development was the discrepancy between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which says Lazcano was 5’8’’ (1.73m) tall, and the Mexican Navy, which says the Lazcano it killed on Sunday was 5’3″ (1.6m) in stature. As a result, an operation that should have brightened Calderon’s legacy has become yet another reminder of Mexico’s desperate need for law enforcement modernization and professionalization.
Nevertheless, Lazcano’s death is a major win for Mexican security forces, no matter how tainted by the body blunders. It’s hard to overestimate how darkly Lazcano and his group deepened Mexico’s narco-violence—transforming it from a largely gangster-on-gangster pestilence to a more pervasive plague that terrorized innocent civilians, including 72 migrant workers the gang massacred in a barn in northern Mexico in 2010 and 52 people killed in a Monterrey casino last year.
Lazcano, born in a ramshackle village in central Hidalgo state, was an army infantryman when he deserted in 1998 to join the Zetas. The gang, founded by a band of ex-special forces commandos, had been recruited as enforcers by the Gulf Cartel, the chief rival of Guzmán’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel. A violent psychopath who purportedly fed rivals to lions and tigers he kept on his ranches, Lazcano took over the Zetas in 2003. Exploiting their army acumen, he turned them into a force that militarized Mexico’s drug war with heavy weaponry like grenade launchers and branched out into criminal enterprises like extortion and kidnapping. “The Zetas changed the game in Mexican drug trafficking,” says a high-ranking U.S. anti-drug official. “Suddenly we were seeing the bad guys with military-grade weapons and tactics.”
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The Zetas, in fact, became the alarming showcase of the more vicious, anarchic mayhem spawned by the 21st-century breakup of Mexico’s traditional drug cartels—a monstrous mob for whom violence, considered a means by most drug-trafficking gangs, was an end. They enlisted even more murderous ex-commandos from Guatemala, the Kaibiles, who helped them pioneer the beheadings of rivals that are so nauseatingly common in Mexico’s drug war today.
All the while, El Verdugo handed out medals for bravery and brazenly advertised for recruits on billboards. But in 2010 the Zetas broke with the Gulf Cartel, and since then Lazcano had seen his leadership challenged by one of his top lieutenants, Miguel Treviño, who officials say owns a large number of race horses in the U.S. and is even more homicidal than his boss. As welcome as Lazcano’s death is, the Zeta schism could lead to even worse violence now that Lazcano is gone, making it harder for Mexican forces to fight the gang. “If a cartel breaks in two,” one Army lieutenant colonel tells TIME, “you just have more different cells and local ‘plaza’ bosses to track.”
In fairness, the controversy surrounding the Lazcano operation shouldn’t obscure the fact that Mexico’s Marines have actually had a number of successes in recent years capturing or killing leaders of the Zetas and other cartels. This week, in fact, the Navy announced that it had also arrested a regional Zeta commander, Salvador Martínez, wanted for engineering such crimes as the 2010 migrants massacre and the murder that year of David Hartley, a U.S. citizen shot while jet-skiing with his wife on Falcon Lake, on the Texas-Mexico border.
Meanwhile, if Lazcano’s body was taken away by Zetas loyal to him, it might be headed to the village of Tezontle, Hidalgo, where Lazcano most often resided. In 2009 he had a large Roman Catholic chapel built there that even sports a plaque bearing his name. (The Mexican Catholic Church has come under heavy criticism for it.) In a nearby cemetery sits a brick mausoleum that police say is meant to receive Lazcano after his death. Decorated with elegant stained glass windows, it’s a stark contrast to the simple earthen tombs of campesinos that dominate the graveyard. But in the case of The Executioner, it’s more of an obscenity than a sepulcher.
—With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas/Mexico City