Following a drug trafficking indictment in 2008, the U.S. government slapped a $5 million reward on the head of Lazcano. His U.S. rap sheet describes him as 180 pounds, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with the clean-cut look of a young professional.
The U.S. indictment says Lazcano’s group “controls hundreds of miles of Mexican territory,” portraying him as a rogue criminal mandarin.
Lazcano joined the army at age 17 and was a member of a special forces paratrooper unit set up to fight drug cartels. After leaving the army in 1998, he and some 30 fellow commandos, some of them deserters, jumped to the dark side to work for the Gulf Cartel.
Based in Matamoros, the gritty city across from Brownsville, Texas, the Gulf Cartel at the time was one of the nation’s biggest drug gangs. Lazcano and the others served as enforcers, calling themselves Los Zetas. As those above him got bumped off, Lazcano moved up, earning the nickname “El Verdugo,” or The Executioner, for his brutality. Another nickname was “Licenciado,” a title of respect for university graduates.
In 2010, amid reports of betrayals, Los Zetas broke off from the Gulf Cartel and launched a blitzkrieg on Mexico, spreading from the northeast, past the industrial hub of Monterrey, into central Mexico and to the Yucatan Peninsula, setting up a new model of criminal enterprise based partly on terror.
Rather than quietly paying off authorities, as other cartels traditionally did, Zetas cells beheaded their foes, often hanging their bodies from bridges. They operated in a loose hierarchy, spreading from cocaine trafficking into extortion, kidnapping, migrant trafficking and counterfeiting.
Slowing the frenzied crime wave became a major goal of the Calderon administration, which enlisted help from the United States. The U.S. began providing intelligence and support to Mexico’s navy, considered the most professional and trustworthy of Mexico’s security and police forces.
Those alliances began to pay off in the past month with a series of blows that struck both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
In a major strike to the Gulf Cartel, a naval unit Sept. 12 captured the group’s leader, Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla, a burly, mustachioed man.
Two weeks later, a separate naval unit trapped Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a Zetas underling to Lazcano known as El Taliban, who ran criminal operations for the group in Coahuila, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi states.
Capturing another Zetas leader, naval commandos on Monday marched Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo before snapping press cameras. Martinez, known as “Squirrel,” was also a senior operative.
“It seems to me that Los Zetas, as a coherent and identifiable crime group, have entered into a death spiral,” Alejandro Hope, a Princeton-trained security analyst, wrote on the Animal Politico website early Tuesday.
A series of earlier arrests, followed by the spate over the past month, began to unravel the group. Hope said the blows might not end violence in Mexico’s northeast corridor because cells without hierarchical control will fight for turf. But he said no group would hold territory in a dominant way.
Moreover, by showing they can get the upper hand against the most swaggering and brutal of Mexico’s crime groups, authorities have reasserted the power of the state.
“If Los Zetas couldn’t last, no organization can last,” Hope wrote, adding that he expects the government to trumpet that message. “Those who flaunt their brutal violence, attacking people without limits, will become a priority target.”
Lazcano may have had a hunch that his life wouldn’t last much longer. Earlier this year, laborers built an elaborate mausoleum in Lazcano’s hometown, Pachuca in Hidalgo state. The mausoleum is the size of a small chapel. Until now, the mausoleum in the San Francisco cemetery has remained empty. But it is widely believed Lazcano prepared it as his final resting place.