PACHUCA, Mexico -- Even in death, drug lord Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano got no rest on Wednesday, his missing corpse the subject of a federal manhunt in northern Mexico and his elaborate mausoleum in this city locked and empty.
Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara took to the airwaves to persuade his skeptical countrymen that the founder of the brutal Los Zetas crime gang had indeed been slain over the weekend.
“One hundred percent sure,” Vergara told MVS Radio.
But the missing body, doubts about whether the size of the corpse was a match to Lazcano and reticence by U.S. officials to congratulate Mexico all added to suspicions about the case.
Lazcano, a 37-year-old former special forces commando, left the army in the late 1990s to form an enforcer wing of the drug-trafficking Gulf Cartel, only later to break with the group and turn his Los Zetas commandos into one of the most powerful and brutal crime groups not only in Mexico but the world.
President Felipe Calderon and Interior Minister Alejandro Poire joined the navy in assuring the public that Lazcano was gunned down Sunday afternoon near a baseball field in Progreso, a town about 70 miles south of the Texas border in Coahuila state.
Navy marines aboard two pickup trucks went to the baseball field after receiving an anonymous tip that armed men were watching a game there. They weren’t expecting Lazcano or anyone in particular, Vergara said. When the armed men opened fire, the marines fired back without knowing who the gunmen were, Vergara said, killing two and watching a third man escape.
"It was luck," he said.
By the time a fingerprint identification was made, though, masked gunmen had burst into a mortuary and hauled off Lazcano’s corpse, presumably so that Los Zetas could control what happened to their leader’s remains.
Frequently in recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has congratulated Mexico following the capture or killing of drug lords. In this case, the DEA has said little.
“We don’t have any comment or confirmation,” DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott said from Washington. Told that the posture was not quelling suspicions among ordinary Mexicans, he added: “I can’t speak to the concerns of ordinary individuals in the streets of Mexico.”
If Lazcano’s body were to turn up somewhere, it would probably be in his native Hidalgo state in central eastern Mexico. A native of Apan, a small city that is a hub for rodeo, Lazcano also considered this state capital a home. It is here where Lazcano sent money for construction of a brightly colored Catholic church and had his own mausoleum erected.
Videos of the ribbon-cutting party show fireworks exploding in the air and guests dining on abundant tamales near a big banner that noted the church was a gift from the Lazcanos. A plaque on the back of the church, Our Lady of San Juan of the Lakes, notes that it was inaugurated in November 2009. “Donated by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano,” the plaque says. It contains a fragment of verse from Psalm 143:
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications!” the plaque reads in Spanish.
Lazcano’s desire to find respite from a criminal life in the embrace of the Catholic Church is not unusual. Colombian drug lords in the 1990s commonly built chapels in their communities.
Publicity about the brightly colored “narco” church with its soaring silver cross, built just a few hundred yards from a major army base, discomfited Mexican Catholic prelates.
“To the shame of some Catholic communities,” the Catholic newsletter Desde la Fe said in October 2010, “there are suspicions that benefactors colluding with drug trafficking have used proceeds from the most dirty and bloody of businesses to help construct a few chapels.”
Neighbors of the church were wary of talking Wednesday.
“You’re not going to get any information around here,” said one man sitting on a stoop.
Adileny Mendez, a young student at a cooking school, voiced doubt about official versions of Lazcano’s fate.
“I don’t think he’s dead. If so, where’s his body? It ought to be lying in wake here,” she said, nodding to the church.
Less than half a mile from the church is the San Francisco Ejidal Cemetery, where earlier this year workers put the finishing touches on its biggest mausoleum, ready to receive the region’s most notorious son.
The mausoleum is the size of a small chapel, with a modern silver cross about two stories tall in the front, similar to the cross in front of the church. Flowerbeds below the mausoleum’s stained-glass windows are well tended.
A watchman said no family members had visited the mausoleum in recent hours, and it remained locked.
If a body is brought there, though, some might still question whether it belongs to Lazcano. For one thing, there is the matter of Lazcano’s height.
On Mexico’s criminal database, Lazcano’s height is listed in meters as 1.6, which would be about 5 foot 3. The DEA website on Lazcano lists him as 5 foot 8. The navy said after the firefight on Sunday that Lazcano’s corpse measured 5 foot 11.
Vergara, the navy spokesman, played down the discrepancy, saying Lazcano joined the army when he was 17 and may have still been growing.
“How good it would be if we could call up criminals and ask: ‘How tall are you? How much do you weigh?’” Vergara said.
He added that the fingerprints taken from the corpse are a match for Lazcano. “On the prints, there is no doubt at all,” he said.