MEXICO CITY - Cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano, an army special forces deserter whose brutal paramilitary tactics helped define the devastating six-year war among Mexico's drug gangs and authorities, has apparently been killed in a firefight with marines in a state on the border with the Texas, the Mexican navy says.
The Navy stopped short of declaring that the head of the Zetas cartel was confirmed killed, saying it was awaiting the results of more forensic tests. A Mexican military official said marines had given the body to local authorities after the Sunday firefight in the state of Coahuila, and he did not know what had happened to it afterward.
The U.S Drug Enforcement Agency said it was still awaiting confirmation that one of Mexico's most feared drug lords had been slain.
If the death is confirmed, it would be one of the most significant victories in Mexico's militarized battle with organized crime two months before the man who sharply expanded it, President Felipe Calderon, leaves office. Lazcano was credited with bringing military tactics and training to the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, then splitting from his former bosses and turning the Zetas into one of the country's two most potent cartels, with a penchant for headline-grabbing atrocities and control of territory stretching along the U.S. border and at least as far south as Guatemala.
Most recently, the Zetas were linked to the assassination of the nephew of the governor of Coahuila last week, a slaying that prompted the federal government to dispatch additional troops, federal police and criminal investigators to the state.
The death would also be a victory for Mexico's most-wanted man and the Zetas' bitterest enemy, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who has been waging a vicious battle with the Zetas for territory along the U.S. border and other parts of Mexico.
Mexican authorities have announced a string of arrests of high-profile Zetas figures in recent months. Such captures often lead authorities to higher-ranking figures.
The navy said Monday there were "strong indications" that one of two men killed in a shootout Sunday was Lazcano, known as "El Lazca." But it added that more forensics tests the body would have to be carried out to confirm the identification.
The Zetas, which Lazcano helped found with other deserters from an elite army unit, have carried out some of Mexico's bloodiest massacres, biggest jail breaks and fiercest attacks on authorities.
Lazcano, who is also known as "El Verdugo" (the Executioner), is suspected in hundreds of killings, including the June 2004 slaying of Francisco Ortiz Franco, a top editor of a crusading weekly newspaper in Tijuana that often reported on drug trafficking. Ortiz Franco was gunned down in front of his two young children as he left a clinic.
The United States has offered a $5 million reward and Mexico an additional $2.3 million for information leading to Lazcano's arrest.
The Sunday shootout came in the rural area of Progreso, Coahuila, about 80 miles (125 kilometers) west of the Texas border, near Laredo.
The navy said it received complaints about armed men in the area and sent a patrol to check out the reports. Gunmen tossed grenades at the patrol from a moving vehicle, wounding one of the marines. His injuries were not life-threatening.
Two of the gunmen were killed in the ensuing shootout, the navy's statement said. In the gunmen's' vehicle, authorities found a grenade launcher, 12 grenades, what appeared to be rocket propelled grenade launcher and two rifles.
Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas recruited more hit men, many of them former Mexican soldiers, and hired "kaibiles," Guatemalan soldiers trained in counterinsurgency, transforming what had been a small group of assassins into a ruthless gang of enforcers for the Gulf cartel. The Zetas also were in charge of protecting the Gulf cartel's drug shipments.
The Zetas finally split from their former bosses in 2010 and have since been fighting a vicious battle for control of the drug business in northeastern Mexico, the traditional home base of the Gulf cartel. The result has been a surge of drug-related killings.
Lazcano "is credited with strengthening the organization ... he created a new structure of regional cells that specialize in specific crimes," Mexican federal prosecutors say in their profile of Lazcano.
The Zetas also earned notoriety for brutality by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in the resort city of Acapulco. The severed heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed "Z" that said: "So that you learn to respect."
Even with the death of Lazcano, the Zetas apparently would still be run by a ruthless capo, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who has a reputation for being even more brutal than Lazcano. Officials say Trevino Morales, also known was "Z 40," has taken on a greater leadership role and has