But Mexico’s Defense Ministry issued a statement late Friday night disputing reports Lazcano was killed.
The slaying of the kingpin behind Mexico’s most brutal drug trafficking organization came after firefights with the Gulf Cartel broke out shortly after 5 a.m. Friday across Matamoros.
Neither Mexican nor U.S. authorities had confirmed Lazcano’s death late Friday evening.
However, three Mexican sources familiar with criminal activity in Matamoros said Lazcano arrived in that city amid a convoy of more than 130 SUVs loaded with his Zeta followers.
Lazcano attempted to flee gunfire along Avenida Lauro Villar, triggering widespread gunfire near Los Tomates International Bridge. Enforcers with the Gulf Cartel took Lazcano’s corpse after he was slain near the bridge, the sources said.
A Mexican army official said the regimiento motorizado — soldiers deployed in large trucks — had been stationed in downtown Matamoros and patrolled the area but did not participate in the gunfire.
But a U.S. federal law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly confirmed a separate motorized army regiment based elsewhere backed up the Zetas.
Sources familiar with the criminal situation confirmed Friday morning the Gulf Cartel kidnapped 11 Zetas — six men and five women — following a shootout Thursday that left 13 people dead.
A U.S. federal law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly confirmed the Mexican soldiers and Zeta enforcers were working together as they tried to free 11 male and female comrades kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel.
Briefed by agents in Matamoros, the U.S. official said four Gulf Cartel members were killed, but the condition of the kidnapped Zetas was unknown.
In a statement, Mexico’s Defense Ministry said military personnel found a body inside a vehicle after a shootout.
Defense officials said the corpse was not Lazcano's — contrary to foreign media reports.
Soldiers also found a building nearby occupied by 17 people — 13 men and four women who had apparently been kidnapped.
The gunfire ignited before dawn Friday and spread throughout the city, with grenade blasts reported as opposing sides clashed, eyewitnesses said.
Another U.S. federal law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly said heavy firefighting took place close to Veterans International Bridge. The widespread gunfire had subsided Friday evening, witnesses said.
Rio Grande Valley law enforcement briefed by federal agencies said they were on alert to any gunmen or Mexican residents attempting to flee the gunfire in Matamoros after a street battle broke out Friday afternoon, about a mile south of the Rio Grande.
No photos or video of Lazcano’s corpse had surfaced as of The Monitor’s press deadline.
Alejandro Poire, spokesman for Mexico’s Public Safety Ministry, posted on Twitter that he could not confirm Lazcano’s death.
“With the information available at the moment, Heriberto Lazcano ‘El Lazca’ is not among those killed in Matamoros,” he wrote before the defense secretariat’s bulletin was issued.
The news quickly spread across Mexico, with national media outlets interpreted Poire’s post as an outright denial of Lazcano’s death.
Friday’s street battles came after widespread shootouts across Matamoros in recent days.
A bulletin posted by Stratfor, an Austin-based private intelligence firm, stated that a body believed to be Lazcano’s was being fingerprinted and forensically tested. The Stratfor bulletin expressed doubt Lazcano was killed.
Born on Christmas Day 1974, Lazcano was one of the founding members of the Zetas, founded by elite Mexican army soldiers who defected to side with the Gulf Cartel.
The Gulf Cartel employed the Zetas as their mercenary enforcement arm for years.
The latter group gradually gained power, and the friends turned foes in February 2010, when the alliance dissolved. The split sent much of Northeast Mexico into disarray as the two drug trafficking organizations struggled to control territory, including prized smuggling routes into South Texas.
U.S. prosecutors named Lazcano, also known as “El Verdugo,” Spanish for executioner, as one of several kingpins of the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in a June 2009 indictment filed in U.S. federal court in the District of Columbia. Beyond outlining the operation of the then allied force, known as “The Company,” prosecutors allege Lazcano took part in trafficking a 13-ton load of cocaine from Colombian suppliers into Mexico in 2007.
In addition to directing drug loads through Mexico into the U.S., the Zeta leader was involved in directing southbound bulk currency shipments, the indictment states.
And the Zetas have stepped up their violent tactics since the split from the Gulf Cartel, raising the former commandos’ profile through brutal beheadings and mutilation of victims who cross their paths. Mexican authorities have identified the cartel as responsible for mass graves unearthed near San Fernando, Tamps., about 80 miles south of Brownsvile that had 72 bodies in August 2010 and nearly 200 bodies at other graves found in March.
U.S. and Mexican authorities also have identified the Zetas as the responsible group behind an attack on Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata in San Luis Potosi state in February.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Lazcano’s arrest; Mexican authorities offered a $2 million reward.
Lazcano was named in a superseding indictment in June 2009 alongside other Mexican drug trafficking bosses, charged with conspiracy to import cocaine to the United States.
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