Center for Strategic Communication

Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the former Mexican army commando turned cartel assassin and one of the world’s most powerful drug lords, has been identified as one of two men killed in a shootout, according to the Mexican military. But now Lazcano’s body has apparently been stolen from a funeral home by a group of armed and masked men.

The group “took the bodies, stuck them in a hearse, and made the owner drive it off,” Coahuila state prosecutor Homero Ramos told reporters on Tuesday. According to a statement from the Mexican navy, “there is strong evidence” that one of two men killed in a shootout in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila is “Heriberto Lazcano, principal leader of Los Zetas Organization.” The military later matched Lazcano’s fingerprints and released (caution: disturbing) photos of the body.

If true, Lazcano’s death would be one of the most serious blows against the cartels in nearly three years. But Lazcano, alias “Z-3/El Lazca,” was also enmeshed in a violent turf battle over control of the cartel with a former deputy. And if Lazcano is indeed dead, he wouldn’t be the first cartel boss to be gunned down only for more killings to follow as rival gangsters moved in to fill the void.

The shootout began on Sunday afternoon when Mexican citizen complained about “armed members of organized crime” operating around the rural town of Progreso. The complaint summoned government marines who then circled the area before being “attacked with grenades from a moving vehicle,” the statement read. But according to El Universal, Ramos said Lazcano was killed while attempting to flee a baseball game after having come under attack by the marines.

A shootout then resulted in wounds to one marine and the deaths of two heavily armed cartel members. According to the statement, a search uncovered “two rifles, a grenade launcher tube, with 12 useful grenades in addition to a rocket launcher tube with two rockets, magazines and cartridges for various firearms.” Following a forensic examination, the navy “reached indications that one of the bodies is Lazcano.” The body was then reportedly given over to relatives for burial after having been identified. Then it was stolen.

Lazcano has been reportedly killed before only to pop up again. But those reports didn’t publicly come from the government, raising the likelihood that the Zetas boss really was killed this time around. Drug war analyst firm Grupo Savant told the San Antonio Express-News that “sources in Mexico” indicate the cartel leader was killed. The kingpin’s death was also noted by outgoing President Felipe Calderon while he was dedicating a new prison in the state of Guanajuato. Lazcano was “one of the most dangerous [criminals] in the world” and was “gunned down resisting authority,” Calderon said.

Originally a hit squad made up of former Mexican army commandos, the Zetas worked as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before splitting with their former parent cartel in 2010. Since then, and under Lazcano’s leadership, the Zetas have fought with the Gulf Cartel, the larger Sinaloa Cartel based in Mexico’s west, and have expanded to become a major cartel itself.

The cartel’s territory now stretches from the Texas border to Guatemala, and is arguably Mexico’s largest. That territory was seized through a wave of violence and kidnappings, and the cartel was shown — partly through operating under a loose franchise model made up of many small cells — to be resilient against efforts by the government to stop them.

But Lazcano had arguably been eclipsed by his deputy, Miguel “Z-40″ Trevino Morales. Earlier this year, Trevino seemed to have seized control of the cartel. That led to a new surge of violence in Mexico’s northeast, pitting Trevino’s faction against Lazcano and Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a powerful but comparatively lower-level boss captured by the government late last month. Mexico City also captured another Zetas boss on Monday wanted for slaughtering hundreds of people in the past year throughout Mexico’s rural northeast and killing a U.S. citizen on the Falcon Lake water reservoir.

With Lazcano gone, that may put an end to the internal conflict within the cartel. But then Trevino might not be able to control a cartel with limited central authority. Reports of mass killings are often blamed on local cartel leaders acting on no one’s authority but their own. It’d clearly mean the end of a man who turned a group of ex-soldiers into mafia assassins, and then expanded the group to become arguably one of the world’s deadliest criminal organizations — and then only to be replaced by someone widely thought to be even worse.

And if Lazcano has already been buried, we might already know where. In February, pictures appeared of a blinged-up and horribly tacky modernist tomb in the city of Tezontle, Hidalgo. Among townspeople, according to El Universal, the mausoleum’s true owner — Lazcano — was an “open secret.”