MEXICO CITY -- The death of the founder and leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas cartel in a firefight with marines outside a baseball game near the Texas border, perhaps, was the biggest coup of President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs.
But triumph turned to embarrassment when authorities lost the body of Heriberto Lazcano. Gunmen snatched his remains from a funeral home and hijacked a hearse hours after the Zetas strongman died in the shootout in the town of Progreso in Coahuila state.
Asked how the body could have been stolen, Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire suggested Tuesday there might have been a lack of coordination between the military and civilian authorities. Under Mexican law, military forces must turn evidence, bodies and suspects over to civilian prosecutors.
"We have to improve coordination, to avoid this type of incident," Poire said. "But there is no doubt about the identity of this person."
Authorities said that assurance was based on fingerprints and photos taken while they still were in possession of Lazcano's body.
The navy released two photos showing the puffy, slack face of a corpse whose features, particularly his flaring nostrils, appeared to match few known photos of the fallen cartel boss.
Lazcan 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, who is considered even more ruthless and brutal than Lazcano.
The killing also is expected to intensify the Zetas' war with the country's other dominant criminal organization -- the Sinaloa cartel, which is 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 along the U.S.-Mexican border, making it one of the most valuable smuggling routes in the world.
Calderon, who leaves office in two months with the six-year-long war on drugs the signature of his presidency, stopped just short of unreservedly declaring Lazcano dead. He proudly proclaimed that 25 people on a 2009 list of Mexico's 37 most wanted drug lords have now been killed or arrested.
Lazcano was born in 1974, according to the U.S., or 1975, according to Mexican officials.