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Originally published October 8, 2012 at 8:22 PM | Page modified October 9, 2012 at 6:37 AM

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Leader of Mexican drug cartel likely killed in shootout

Mexico's navy said Monday there was strong evidence the body of one of two men killed in a shootout Sunday was top drug-cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano, suspected in hundreds of killings.

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MEXICO CITY — Top Zetas drug-cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano has apparently been killed in a firefight with marines in the northern border state of Coahuila, the Mexican navy said late Monday.

The navy said there was strong evidence the body of one of two men killed in the shootout Sunday was Lazcano, known as "El Lazca." But it added that more forensics tests would have to be carried out to confirm the identification.

The report of Lazcano's death came just hours after the navy nabbed a suspected Zetas regional leader accused of involvement in some of the country's most notorious crimes in recent years. The suspect, Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, alias "El Ardilla," or The Squirrel, was paraded before reporters in a televised presentation in Mexico City.

Naval spokesman Vice Adm. Jose Luis Vergara said Martinez was "presumed responsible" for the possible killing of David Hartley, who disappeared Sept. 30, 2010, on what his wife, Tiffany, described as an outing on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border south of the Tamaulipas city of Nuevo Laredo. His body was never found.

Hartley's disappearance fed an outcry over lawlessness along regions of the U.S.-Mexico border that led to an increased U.S. armed presence.

Martinez is believed to have masterminded the massacre of 72 migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2010 and has been linked to the escape of 151 prisoners in 2010 from a jail in the city of Nuevo Laredo, and to the recent flight of 131 prisoners, many of them Zetas, in the city of Piedras Negras.

The death of Lazcano would be a major victory for Mexican law enforcement. The Zetas cartel that he helped found with other deserters from an elite army unit went on to carry out some of Mexico's bloodiest massacres, biggest jailbreaks and fiercest attacks on authorities.

Lazcano, who is also known as "El Verdugo," The Executioner, for his brutality, is suspected in hundreds of killings, including the June 2004 slaying of Francisco Ortiz Franco, a top editor of a crusading weekly newspaper in Tijuana that often reported on drug trafficking. Ortiz Franco was gunned down in front of his two young children as he left a clinic.

The United States has offered a $5 million reward and Mexico an additional $2.3 million for information leading to Lazcano's arrest.

A navy patrol investigating complaints about armed men in the rural area of Progreso, Coahuila, about 80 miles west of the Texas border, near Laredo, was attacked by grenades tossed from a moving vehicle. Two of the gunmen were killed in the ensuing shootout, the navy's statement said.

Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas recruited more hit men, many of them former Mexican soldiers, and hired "kaibiles," Guatemalan soldiers trained in counterinsurgency, transforming what had been a small group of assassins into a ruthless gang of enforcers for the Gulf cartel. The Zetas also protected cartel drug shipments.

The Zetas finally split from their former bosses in 2010 and have since been fighting a vicious battle for control of the drug business in northeastern Mexico, the traditional home base of the Gulf cartel.

The result has been a surge of drug-related killings.

Martinez, short and pudgy-cheeked, seemed nearly buoyant at the meeting with journalists, offering a tight smile, nodding vigorously to reporters' questions, flashing a thumbs-up and pumping his handcuffed fists in the air as he was led away. A reward of slightly more than $1 million had been offered for his capture.

Even with the death of Lazcano, the Zetas would still be run by a ruthless capo, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who has a reputation for being even more brutal than Lazcano. Trevino Morales, also known as "Z 40," has taken on a greater leadership role and has even been reported to have replaced Lazcano as operational chief.

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