In an apparent double blow to Mexico's most notorious drug cartel, Mexican authorities said they believed they have killed the leader of the Zetas gang and captured a high-ranking lieutenant wanted for more than 300 murders.
The Mexican Navy said in a brief statement late Monday that there were "strong indications" that marines had killed Zetas top man Heriberto Lazcano in a battle in Progreso, Coahuila, reports the Los Angeles Times. After responding to citizens' reports of armed men in the vicinity, a marine patrol came under attack with grenades and gunfire. The marines returned fire, killing two men. Initial forensic tests indicated that Mr. Lazcano was one of the two dead.
The death of Lazcano, if confirmed, would be a massive blow to the Zetas organization, one of Mexico's most fearsome. Lazcano was Mexico's second most wanted man, behind only Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán. The Mexican and US governments both offer rewards for his capture, of $2 million and $5 million respectively.
Lazcano was an original member of the Zetas, which started out as a paramilitary hit squad for the Gulf cartel before breaking off to work independently, ultimately rising to become one of the most feared gangs in Mexico. Like most of the Zetas founding members, Lazcano was a former Mexican special forces soldier, and thus a cut above the average Mexican gangster. Lazcano has run the Zetas gang since 2004, and in his book "El Narco," journalist Ioan Grillo wrote that Lazcano brought the gang's violence to a new level after he took over, targeting not just victims and rival gangs, but authorities as well.
Taking leadership of the Zetas was Heriberto Lazcano, or Z-3, known by his chilling nickname the Executioner. Hailing from the rural state of Hidalgo, the muscular, thick-necked Lazcano shared a peasant background with his friend and mentor [Arturo] Guzmán, Z-1. Lazcano also joined the army as a teenager and gained promotion to the special forces. When Guzmán defected, the loyal Lazcano was quick to follow. However, Lazcano, who took control of the Zetas at age twenty-eight, proved he was more bloodthirsty than his teacher.
Guards at a penitentiary in Matamoros refused to smuggle in luxuries to some Zetas prisoners. So Lazcano applied pressure. One night, as six prison workers finished a late shift, waiting Zetas abducted them one by one. Hours later, a horrified guard at the prison gates found the bodies of the six employees in a Ford Explorer. They had been blindfolded, hand-cuffed, and shot in the head. The Zetas were showing a new approach for dealing with authorities. Police had once bullied criminals into paying up. Now the worm had turned.
News of Lazcano's possible death came the same day as the Mexican Navy, in a separate incident, announced the capture of Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, a regional Zetas leader known as "The Squirrel," in the city of Nuevo Laredo along the US-Mexican border, reports CNN. Mr. Martinez is best known in the US for the alleged killing of American David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, located south of Nuevo Laredo along the border, but he is notorious in Mexico for his alleged role in hundreds of other murders, including the 2010 mass execution of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas.
Mr. Hartley and his wife were jet-skiing on Falcon Lake in September 2010 when they encountered several boats with armed men aboard who opened fire on the couple. Hartley was shot in the head, but his wife escaped to the Texas side of the lake. Mexican and US police suspect that the Hartleys encountered a drug deal gone bad.
Although Martinez was not named a suspect by the US officials investigating Hartley's murder, Mexico announced yesterday that he was suspected of involvement in the murder of Mexico's lead investigator on the Hartley case. The Mexican Navy did not further explain Martinez's connection to the Hartley murder, but a US sheriff noted to CNN that Martinez was in charge of the region for the Zetas.
"Based on the information I have, he may have been the one responsible for that area, but not the one responsible for the actual killing," said Sigifredo Gonzalez, sheriff of Zapata County, Texas.
While the capture of Martinez and the alleged killing of Lazcano will likely move ahead those cases the two men were involved in, they do not necessarily mean that the Zetas are cowed. Mr. Grillo, discussing the capture of Gulf cartel leader and Zetas cofounder Osiel Cárdenas, noted hypothetically that if Lazcano was taken off the board, it might trigger an outbreak of violence among the Zetas, and will not diminish the gang's reputation.
When leaders such as Osiel Cárdenas are taken out, their organizations have only become more violent, as rival lieutenants fight to become top dog. Groups such as the Zetas and Familia [Michoacana] have also become powerful because of their brand names rather than the reputation of their capos. Even if Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, the Executioner, is arrested, the Zetas will likely continue as a fearsome militia.