HOUSTON — The Mexican government is claiming a major victory in its war against illegal drug smugglers and violent criminal gangs after Mexican Marines killed the leader of the gang known as "Los Zetas" on Sunday. A state prosecutor, however, said gunmen stole Lazcano's body from a funeral home. This follows the arrest of a gang member suspected of mass murders and last month's arrest of several other alleged major drug traffickers. But, the violent drug war in Mexico is far from over.
Mexican authorities have posted photographs on the Internet of the body of the man they say was the leader of the country's most brutal drug gang - Los Zetas. Mexican Marines, who carried out the operation that led to his shooting death, say fingerprints and other forensic tests prove the man they killed was 37-year-old Heriberto Lazcano, a former soldier who headed the gang that is known for its military-style tactics and its horrific violence.
The killing of the top Zeta is a major victory for President Felipe Calderon as he prepares to leave office in December. Analysts say the war he started against criminal gangs after entering office six years ago is the most significant action of his presidency. More than 60,000 people have died in the violence connected to that war, which involves Mexican soldiers and police fighting drug gangs that are also engaged in fighting with one another.
One of the top U.S. experts on Mexico, George Grayson of The College of William & Mary in Virginia, has written extensively about the drug war. Grayson published a book on the Zetas earlier this year titled "The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created."
He says Lazcano's death might give rise to more violence as new leaders take over and younger gunmen vie for positions in the highly structured organization.
“The problem is that the newer leaders are younger, they are less experienced, they are more likely to use drugs and they want to earn their stripes [prove themselves] by being extremely vicious," said Grayson.
Grayson says that in addition to the government, the other big winner is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman - the fugitive leader of Mexico's largest and most powerful drug trafficking group, the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman has been backing the Gulf Cartel in its fight against Los Zetas. He recently succeeded in patching a rift within that organization that weakened its hand in fighting for control of the most important drug smuggling corridor near the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas.
“El Chapo comes out of this as one of the winners. And I suspect that he would like to, with a united Gulf Cartel, make a grab for Nuevo Laredo," he said.
Analyst George Grayson says he expects to see more violence in that area and in the nearby industrial city of Monterrey, which has had some improvement in public safety in recent months after suffering a wave of shootings, kidnappings and assaults.
Grayson says the Lazcano killing demonstrates a shift in tactics that has paid dividends for the Mexican government. He says President Calderon began his war on drug traffickers with massive deployments of army units, but more recently has relied on the Navy and Marines to carry out precision strikes on drug gang leaders.
"He is no longer sending hundreds, maybe thousands of army troops into areas where there was often collateral damage or human rights abuses. He is relying less on the broad sword and more on the scalpel, and that scalpel is being wielded successfully by the Navy and the Marines," he said.
Incoming Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, says he favors such tactics.
George Grayson says Mr. Pena Nieto realizes that the average Mexicans are more concerned about public safety than crippling the illicit drug trade.
"The public is less concerned about the number of trophies of kingpins that are on the mantelpiece in the presidential palace than they are about having security in their homes and in their schools and in their workplaces. And that is going to be the major challenge that Pena Nieto has - not simply taking down the drug lords, but reducing the violence," said Grayson.
In addition to killing Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano, government forces this week captured Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, who is known as "The Squirrel." He is suspected of some 300 murders, including the 2010 mass killing of 72 migrants in the northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas, and the murder that same year of a U.S. citizen who crossed into Mexico on a jet ski on Falcon Lake on the border near Laredo, Texas.