October 9, 2012 / 11:05 PM / 7 years ago

NEWSMAKER-Slain Mexican kingpin deserted army, led Zetas drug gang

MEXICO CITY, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Heriberto Lazcano, the slain
boss of the Zetas drug cartel, was once an elite special forces
soldier before switching sides to join the criminals he was
charged to fight, eventually becoming one of Mexico's most
feared and brutal kingpins. 
    Known as "The Executioner" and "Z-3," Lazcano was killed on
Sunday in a gun battle with Marines in northern Coahuila state,
Mexico's Navy said. If confirmed, it would be the biggest coup
yet for President Felipe Calderon in his war on drug cartels. 
    However in a bizarre twist, Lazcano's body was snatched by
armed men from a funeral home just hours later, shrouding the
incident in mystery. While Calderon said "all available
evidence" indicated the cartel chief had been killed, including
finger prints, he did not say he knew for sure that he was dead.
    Lazcano was mistakenly reported killed in 2007 after a clash
with the military.
    Lazcano was one of Mexico's most wanted men and U.S.
authorities offered a reward of up to $5 million for his
capture. Only Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa
Cartel, would represent a bigger prize to the government. 
    Born into rural poverty, Lazcano deserted from a Mexican
army unit formed to combat the drug gangs in 1998 and joined the
Gulf cartel's vicious enforcement wing, the Zetas, where he
quickly won power thanks to his merciless slaying of rivals.
    The Attorney General's office has said Lazcano was believed
to own a ranch with a pit containing lions and tigers, into
which he used to hurl his victims. 
    The Zetas, named after a military call sign, split from the
Gulf Cartel in 2010, and have continued to expand even as rival
cartels joined forces against them.
    Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas grew into a feared
organization of more than 10,000 gunmen with operations
stretching from the Rio Grande, on the border with Texas, to
deep into Central America. 
    Armed with a huge arsenal of automatic weapons, dynamite,
grenades and even rocket launchers, the Zetas have waged a
gruesome battle for supremacy with a coalition of rival drug
gangs from Mexico's Pacific state of Sinaloa since 2004.
    The gang's expansion has pushed out Mexico's older cartels
in many areas, giving them a dominant position in the
multi-billion-dollar cross-border drug trade, as well as
extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.
    They were blamed for the brutal massacre of 72 foreign
migrant workers headed to the United States and the burning of a
casino in the affluent city of Monterrey that claimed 52 lives.
    Hundreds of bodies found in mass graves may have been their
kidnapping victims.
    Rivals, snatched from safe houses and off the streets, were
tortured and mutilated by the Zetas, who are believed to have
pioneered decapitating gangland rivals, now a grim hallmark of
Mexican organized crime.
    In May, Zetas were blamed with killing 49 people and dumping
their headless and limbless bodies on a highway near Monterrey.
    Lazcano's recruitment drive extended to former elite
Guatemalan soldiers known as Kaibiles, who committed human
rights atrocities during that country's long civil war, Mexican
officials say.
    But little else was known about the kingpin, who turned his
back on opulent displays of wealth and power common among other
Mexican drug lords, and kept a low profile.
    "He is the most secretive of the bosses because he's trained
in intelligence," George Grayson, a U.S.-based Mexico expert at
The College of William and Mary said of Lazcano at the height of
his power. 
    "He's not out there throwing birthday parties or getting
musicians to compose songs for him, he's out there to make
money," he said, referring to the more flamboyant habits of
other drug traffickers. 
    Under Lazcano's command, the Zetas were organized in a
cellular structure and low-ranking members know little about
overall operations.
    The group became a key target of Calderon, who made crushing
the Gulf cartel and its former enforcers one of his main goals
in a military-led offensive involving tens of thousands of
troops launched after he took office in 2006.
    About 60,000 people have been killed in drugs violence since
    Despite the government assault, Lazcano appeared undaunted,
openly advertising for soldiers to desert and join the Zetas.
    The group strung banners from bridges over main roads in the
towns of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo on the U.S. border offering
attractive pay to recruit other deserters like Lazcano, who
receive measly salaries in the army.
    In the working class neighborhood in Pachuca, in central
Mexico, where Lazcano grew up, he built a vast Roman Catholic
brick chapel in 2009.  
    Fronted by a towering cross in light steel, a plaque says
openly, "Donated by Heriberto Lazcano. Lord, hear my prayer,
attend my petitions, you that are faithful and just." In
anticipation of his own death, the kingpin had also built a
brick mausoleum nearby, police said.  
    In recent months, the Zetas appeared to be rupturing, with a
longstanding rivalry between Lazcano and his deputy Miguel
Trevino, alias "Z-40," exploding into violence. 
    Analysts said Lazcano's death could trigger further blood
letting as cartel lieutenants battle to fill a power vacuum
within his faction of the cartel.
    "As they don't have a strong leader ... second or third tier
leaders could take over the organization. ... It could lead to
greater violence," said Vicente Sanchez, a researcher with the
Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
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