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With Heriberto Lazcano now dead, are Mexico's Zetas in decline?

The Mexican navy says that it has killed Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of Mexico's feared Zetas drug cartel, but that his body was then stolen by gunmen.  

By Tim GaynorReuters, Lizbeth DiazReuters / October 10, 2012

This undated file photo, downloaded from Mexico's Attorney General's Office most wanted criminals Web page November 2010, shows alleged Zetas drug cartel leader and founder Heriberto Lazcano in an undisclosed location. The Mexican Navy says on Monday, Oct. 8, that Mr. Lazcano has apparently been killed in a firefight with marines in the Mexican northern border state of Coahuila.

Mexico's Attorney General's Office/AP/File

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Mexico City

Mexico says it has killed Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of the brutal Zetas drug gang and the most powerful kingpin to fall in a six-year battle against cartels, but in a surreal twist his body was snatched from a funeral home by armed men.

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Mexico's navy said on Tuesday fingerprint tests had confirmed Lazcano was killed in a firefight in a small village in the northern state of Coahuila on Sunday afternoon.

But it appeared the military may have been unaware it had killed Lazcano until his corpse was stolen from the funeral home in the northern town of Sabinas before dawn on Monday.

Lazcano, alias "The Executioner," had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head and was the highest profile drug lord to be killed or captured in a military offensive launched when President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006. 

Just hours after he was killed, in a scene straight out of a movie, an armed group snatched Lazcano's body and that of another Zetas member from the funeral parlor.

"A masked, armed group overpowered the personnel, took the bodies and forced the owner of the funeral home to drive the get-away vehicle," Homero Ramos, Coahuila's state prosecutor,told a news conference on Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear how the bodies were so easily snatched, and local security officials declined to say whether the funeral home was being guarded. A spokeswoman for the home declined comment on how Lazcano's corpse was taken.

If Lazcano's men took the body, it would not be the first time something of the kind has happened in Mexico's drug war. In 2010, police killed Nazario Moreno, leader of La Familia cartel, in a firefight in western Mexico, but gunmen carried off his body into the hills before it could be recovered.

While the government and rival gangs may welcome Lazcano's death, the failure to guard his body is an embarrassment, and a battle for control of the Zetas could become a big headache for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office on Dec. 1.

Calderon hailed the navy in a speech on Tuesday saying that "all the available evidence clearly indicated" Lazcano had been gunned down on Sunday. But the president did not say that he knew for sure Lazcano was dead.

U.S. authorities were also unable to confirm the death of Lazcano, who was identified in Mexico from the prints of three fingers on his right hand, the navy said.

However, Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said on Tuesday evening there was "no doubt" that the dead man was Lazcano.

Photographs published by the navy showed the body of a man in a dark shirt stained with mud lying on a table, his face similar to mugshots of Lazcano, a former Mexican special forces soldier who defected to join the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s.

The navy has played a major role in the crackdown on the cartels, claiming three of the most wanted bosses in the past month alone. Some experts say it is more trusted by U.S. intelligence services than the army and the federal police.

Coahuila prosecutor Ramos said Lazcano and the other man were confronted on Sunday by Marines who had received a tip-off about two men in a vehicle acting suspiciously.

In the ensuing fight by a welcome sign to the arid village of Progreso about 80 miles (130 km) from the U.S. border, the men attacked the Marines with grenades. A grenade launcher and a host of other weapons were later found inside the vehicle.

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