The Mexican Navy said Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3," was killed in a firefight with marines on Sunday afternoon -- a loss which could accelerate the group's slide into chaos -- but the navy still does not have a body to prove it.
According to an official statement, on Sunday at 1.30 p.m. the marines received reports that gunmen were active in Progreso, Coahuila. A patrol was sent to investigate, and was attacked with grenades. One marine was injured and two presumed gunmen were killed in the ensuing gun battle, one of whom was named as Lazcano.
Doubts have been raised about the report because the corpse identified as Lazcano was stolen from a funeral home by a group of gunmen, according to the Coahuila attorney general. The navy said, however, it had identified Lazcano's body by his fingerprints before it went missing. The navy also released two alleged photographs of Lazcano’s face and body.
In recent months, Lazcano has been the more evasive of the Zetas’ top leaders. There were rumors that he was in South America, or even Europe.
Meanwhile, the other top commander of the Zetas, Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” had a very public split with one faction of the Zetas, led by the recently captured “El Taliban,” in Central Mexico.
But the split may help explain why Lazcano was in the country at all.
InSight Crime Analysis
[See video, below, for InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley talking about what the future holds for the Zetas following the alleged death of El Lazca.]
Lazcano has proven a slippery figure, even after his supposed death. This is the third time during President Felipe Calderon’s term that Lazcano has been reported dead, which may have been what prompted the marines to release the photos of the corpse. And, as analyst Alejandro Hope has pointed out, there are a few peculiarities about the way Lazcano was allegedly killed. The Zetas leader appeared to be poorly armed, and accompanied by few bodyguards.
This is a marked contrast to the deaths of other top cartel leaders, including Gulf Cartel leader Antonio Cardenas Guillen, alias "Tony Tormenta," Familia Michoacana leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias "El Chayo," and Beltran Leyva Organization leader Arturo Beltran Leyva, all of whom were killed in dramatic gun battles that lasted several hours.
It is also curious that the marines presented the operation against Lazcano as having taken place almost by chance: so far it is not clear whether this was a targeted attack against the Zetas leader. It does raise the question of whether the marines had identified the man as Lazcano when they killed him.
In the end, the apparent theft of Lazacano's body is an embarrassing reminder about the limits on the power of the Mexican security forces. What's more, the loss of the body takes away from what would be a big victory for the Calderon administration: Lazcano would be the highest-level capo to be killed or captured since Sinaloa Cartel leader Ignacio Coronel Villarreal in 2010.
The question now is what this means for the Zetas and Mexico. Lazcano’s power as a Zetas leader had ebbed in recent months. He spent large chunks of his time abroad, according to reports. His death, therefore, may not have the same kind of operational impact that it would have had in 2010.
Lazcano did, however, control much of the Zetas' finances, according to Sam Logan, founder of Southern Pulse and author of a recent book on Lazcano and the Zetas, "The Executioner's Men." His ability to unite the troops will also be missed, Logan told InSight Crime.
With Lazcano gone, Treviño is now the most visible leader of the Zetas. There are three possible developments:
- The Zetas will coalesce around Treviño
- Several factions of the Zetas will reject Treviño's leadership, leading to greater infighting
- Some combination of these two outcomes
The third option is the most likely. Treviño has already been accused by other Zetas commanders of being a “traitor” and betraying his comrades; it is possible that Lazcano’s death will give more traction to such arguments.
The result will likely be more violence, especially in the northeast where this group has concentrated its forces. Mexican analyst Hope says the group is spiraling toward "banditry."
Ultimately, as InSight Crime has previously argued, Lazcano’s death will not halt the Zetas’ split, but will accelerate it. Unlike Mexico’s traditional drug cartels, whose revenue came from the international trafficking of drugs, the Zetas have no need of international contacts to make money: much of their revenue comes from local criminal activities that can be practiced by anyone at any time.
In other words, the Zetas are a group built around collecting profits from various criminal activities -- including local drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and theft -- which any criminal with weapons, infrastructure and a fierce reputation can do.
This is not a sustainable model, as it encourages local cells to split off and try to make a living by themselves. The Zetas’ bloody, violent decline is inevitable; Lazcano’s death will do little to slow it.