MEXICO CITY – The U.S. government knew that a suspect fatally shot by Mexican marines was the head of the widely feared Zetas drug cartel well before the marines left the body unguarded in a small-town funeral home, where it was stolen in a pre-dawn raid by armed men, U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
The U.S. had independently verified the identity of Zeta founder and leader Heriberto Lazcano, killed in a shootout Sunday in a northern Mexican town, before his body was stolen at about 1 a.m. Monday, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak to the press about the case.
The information throws into question the Mexican navy's insistence that marines thought they had killed a common criminal and that was why they left his body unguarded at the funeral home where gunmen hijacked a hearse in the middle of night. Rear Admiral Jose Luis Vergara, the navy's chief spokesman, said last week that the identity wasn't confirmed through Mexico's fingerprint database until after the body was gone.
The theft of the body was an embarrassing twist on one of President Felipe Calderon's biggest drug-war victories, the killing of perhaps the top capo to fall so far in Calderon's focused attack on cartel leadership. Twenty-five of the 37 most-wanted drug traffickers from a list issued in 2009 have now been caught or killed.
"We had it confirmed before he was stolen," the U.S. official told the AP.
U.S. authorities didn't provide details on how they knew, only that they had confirmed evidence. They didn't say whether they believed the Mexican navy also knew Lazcano's identity soon after it carried out the operation that killed Lazcano and his driver. Mexican navy officials and the attorney-general's office declined to comment on Saturday.
Mexican forces often work from intelligence provided by U.S. law enforcement, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, on the location and movements of top drug lords. Both Mexican and U.S. officials said the navy came upon Lazcano by accident before Sunday's attack.
Lazcano, who was born in 1974, according to the U.S., or 1975, according to Mexican officials, was one of the most-wanted drug traffickers in Mexico and the U.S. and hunted for years by both governments. He was a former member of the army special forces who went on to lead a band of assassins he originally called "The Company" for the Gulf Cartel, which dominated drug trafficking through Mexico's northeastern border with Texas for years. They later became known as the Zetas, named for the radio code given to high officers. The two groups split in 2010, leading to an unprecedented escalation in drug violence in Mexico's northeastern corridor.
Lazcano was personally responsible for hundreds of murders, according to the Mexican government, and led an organization responsible for some of the country's most shocking atrocities and mass killings. Those include the deaths of 52 casino gamblers and workers in an extortion fire last year in the northern city of Monterrey and the slaughter of 72 migrants in the border state of Tamaulipas in 2010.
There was a $5 million reward for him in the U.S. and $2.5 million in Mexico.
The Mexican navy didn't announce publicly until last Monday night, more than 24 hours after the shootout, that it believed it had killed Lazcano.
They admitted the body had been stolen only after it leaked out in the local press on Tuesday.
Calderon's administration said by Tuesday that there was no doubt about the identity of the slain man. The U.S. government waited until Thursday afternoon to release a statement congratulating Mexico on the slaying.
A second U.S. law enforcement official, who was monitoring internal communications after Sunday's shootout, also said the U.S. knew earlier that marines had killed Lazcano.
According to Mexican accounts, Lazcano was killed in a confrontation outside a baseball field about 1 p.m. Sunday in the town of Progreso, about 120 miles south of the Texas border. The navy said the marines were acting on a complaint from a local citizen about armed men in a truck and were coming up behind the vehicle when they took fire and grenades. The marines returned fire, killing the driver in the truck. Two others got out and ran. One got away, while the man later identified as Lazcano was felled by six bullets, two to the head, according to the autopsy.
Marines approached the bodies of Lazcano and his accomplice to confirm they were dead, then guarded the scene and called the Coahuila state attorney general's office, which had jurisdiction over an investigation into the killing, according to a Mexican military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The official said marines called the state prosecutor's office twice, and waited for hours — an unusual amount of time — for investigators to arrive.
Vergara said in interviews this week that state officials didn't arrive until 7 p.m.
He said marines then accompanied the bodies to a funeral home in nearby Sabinas, though it's unclear what time. The marines left before midnight.
A Coahuila state forensics expert was called to the funeral home in Sabinas to process the body around 11 p.m. Sunday according to a state police official who was not authorized to speak to the press. The expert finished taking fingerprints and photographs about 12:15 a.m. Monday, and sent the information to the federal attorney general's office, the police official said.
A short-time later, gunmen forced the funeral home owner to take the body by hearse to an unknown location. The owner could not be reached for comment this week.
Stealing bodies of fallen accomplices has been described as part of the Zeta culture, in which soldiers don't leave their comrades behind.
Lazcano was believed to be a devout Catholic who wanted a proper burial. An elaborate mausoleum in his hometown in central Hidalgo state stands near a chapel that bears a bronze-colored plaque reading: "Donated by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, Lord, hear my prayer." The plaque also says the chapel was built in honor of Pope John Paul II.
The mausoleum has a 15-foot (5-meter) high chrome metal cross, stained-glass windows of figures such as red roses, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the sun's rays and clouds. A rectangular hole, possibly for a coffin, is near the windows, beneath a crucifix.
As of late last week, Mexican media images showed no change at the empty tomb and no acknowledgement that Lazcano had died — not even a single bouquet of flowers.
Olga R. Rodriguez in Progreso, Mexico and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.