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Mexico drug kingpin killed; thieves still his remains from funeral home

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 9:28 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — The death of the founder and leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas cartel in a firefight with marines near the Texas border was perhaps the biggest coup of President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs.

But triumph turned to embarrassment when authorities lost the body.

Authorities still haven't found the remains of Heriberto Lazcano, which were snatched from a funeral home and whisked away by gunmen in a hijacked hearse hours after the Zetas strongman died in a hail of gunfire in the town of Progreso in Coahuila state.

The corpse theft left authorities on Tuesday assuring Mexicans that they got the right man based on fingerprints and photos taken while they still had the body. The navy released two of the photos, showing the puffy, slack face of a corpse whose features, particularly his flaring nostrils, appeared to match the few known photos of Lazcano.

The fallen capo was an army special forces deserter whose brutality and paramilitary tactics transformed a small group of drug cartel enforcers into one of the world's most feared international criminal organizations. Analysts say his death could set off a power struggle inside the Zetas as its relatively autonomous local cells decide whether to align with its remaining boss, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, a man considered even more ruthless and brutal than Lazcano.

The killing is expected to intensify the Zetas' war with the country's other dominant criminal organization, the Sinaloa cartel controlled by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

At the center of the two cartels' struggle is Nuevo Laredo, a violence-torn city across from Laredo, Texas. More freight crosses there than anywhere else along the U.S.-Mexican border, making it one of the most valuable smuggling routes in the world.

“There will be a shootout at the OK Corral over Nuevo Laredo,” predicted George Grayson, an expert on the Zetas and co-author of “The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs and the Shadow State They Created.” Calderon, who leaves office in two months with the six-year-long war on drug the signature of his presidency, stopped short of unreservedly declaring Lazcano dead, but said evidence clearly indicated the Zetas founder had been slain.

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