Mexico Security Memo: The Death of Los Zetas' Top Leader

3 MINS READOct 10, 2012 | 10:15 GMT

On Oct. 8, the Mexican navy reported that Los Zetas leader Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano was one of two men killed in a shootout Oct. 7 in Progreso, Coahuila state. After Progreso residents warned of organized crime activity, navy elements began patrolling the area and were attacked by armed men.

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Less than 24 hours later, during the early morning hours of Oct. 8, the presumed body of Lazcano was stolen from a funeral home in Sabinas, Coahuila state. Local authorities reportedly had conducted preliminary forensics, including taking photographs and fingerprints. The fact that the navy allowed local authorities to conduct verification and did not protect the body is certainly anomalous. Also, Lazcano's biometrics according to the U.S. Department of Justice do not match those of the dead body. The Department of Justice reports that Lazcano is 5 feet 8 inches tall, but the Mexican navy said the body was 5 feet 2 inches tall. With discrepancies in reporting and the disappearance of the body, speculation over whether Lazcano is truly dead will likely ensue. However, given Los Zetas' resiliency after past leadership losses and the transition in top leadership from Lazcano to Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales, there will not likely be any significant setbacks in Los Zetas' operations, regardless of whether Lazcano was killed.

Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections, and members are groomed to step into leadership when the need arises. This contrasts starkly with the culture of other cartels, including the Sinaloa Federation. Because of its relative meritocracy, Los Zetas are somewhat more prepared for loss of significant leaders. The transition in leadership from Lazcano to Trevino demonstrates the group's efficiency in replacing top leadership. While it is still not certain whether Lazcano resisted Trevino's ascendance to the top role within the organization, the transition did not hinder the organization significantly.

Whether Lazcano died during the shootout with the Mexican military, Los Zetas operations will continue as observed in recent months. The flow of illicit drugs into the United States from Mexico's northeastern region will continue, particularly in Los Zetas' most valued plaza of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state. Los Zetas are still engaged in violent turf wars with the Gulf cartel and remnants of Velazquez's network in the northeast and with the Sinaloa Federation, the Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion in the central states, most notably in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. Lazcano's death could escalate violence in Zetas-controlled territories, such as Coahuila state, should they retaliate for the loss of such an influential figure or perceive a betrayal from within the organization.

If the Mexican navy's claims are accurate, the death of Lazcano would solidify Trevino's top leadership role within Los Zetas. However, Lazcano's death will likely increase law enforcement and military pressure on Trevino. Having removed Lazcano, both Mexican and U.S. authorities will have the opportunity to increase focus on Los Zetas' top leaders, and Trevino is now the highest-profile target within the organization.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit

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