By Tim Gaynor and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico says it has killed the leader of the brutal Zetas drug gang, the most powerful kingpin to fall in a six-year battle against cartels, but in a surreal twist, his body was snatched from a funeral home by armed men.
Mexico's Navy said on Tuesday that fingerprint tests had confirmed that Heriberto Lazcano was killed in a firefight in the northern state of Coahuila on Sunday afternoon.
Lazcano, alias "The Executioner," had a $5 million bounty on his head and was the highest profile drug lord to be killed or captured in a military offensive launched when President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006.
However, in a scene straight out of a movie, an armed group snatched Lazcano's body and that of another Zetas member from a funeral home in northern Mexico before dawn on Monday, just hours after they were killed.
"A masked, armed group overpowered the personnel, took the bodies and forced the owner of the funeral home to drive the get-away vehicle," Homero Ramos, Coahuila's state prosecutor, told a news conference on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear how the bodies were so easily snatched, and local security officials declined to comment on whether the funeral parlor was being guarded.
While the government - and rival gangs - may welcome Lazcano's death, the failure to properly guard his body is embarrassing and a battle for control of the Zetas could become a major headache for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office on December 1.
Ramos said Lazcano and the other man were confronted on Sunday by Marines who had received a tip-off about two men in a vehicle acting suspiciously.
In the ensuing fight, the men attacked the Marines with grenades. A grenade launcher and host of weapons were later found inside the vehicle.
Photographs published by the Navy showed the body of a man in a dark shirt stained with mud lying on a table, his face similar to mugshots of Lazcano, a former Mexico special forces soldier who defected to join the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s.
He and other army deserters built up the Zetas group as enforcers for the cartel but then broke away in 2010 to fight a bloody turf war with their former bosses and other drug gangs.
The Zetas are considered one of the two most powerful drug gangs in Mexico and have carried out some of the worst atrocities in a drugs war that has killed about 60,000 people during Calderon's term.
Lazcano, also known as "Z-3," was one of Mexico's most-wanted men. Only Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, would represent a bigger prize to the government.
Gonzalo Villanueva, a 46-year-old hotel worker in Mexico City, said Lazcano's killing of showed Calderon's policy was succeeding.
"Before this one, no president had taken on the drug gangs. And let's hope the next government continues the fight," he said.
Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas grew into a gang of more than 10,000 gunmen with operations stretching from the Rio Grande, on the border with Texas, to deep into Central America.
They have rapidly displaced Mexico's older cartels in many areas, giving them a dominant position in the multi-billion-dollar cross-border drug trade, as well as in extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.
But the Zetas have appeared to be splitting, with a longstanding rivalry between Lazcano and his deputy Miguel Trevino, alias "Z-40," exploding into violence in recent months.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst who formerly worked in the government intelligence agency, said most of the gang's leadership had been either captured or killed in the past year.
"They are in something of a death spiral. Each capture has led to snitching and more snitching," he said. "A lot of people in the organization will find it better to just slip out before they are turned in."
Since 2009, government troops have caught or killed more than 20 major drug lords. Senior Zetas boss Ivan Velazquez, also known as "El Taliban" or "Z-50", and Gulf Cartel head Jorge Costilla, alias "El Coss," were both captured last month.
The Zetas' alleged leader in Tamaulipas state was arrested on Saturday. He is believed to be responsible for the murders in 2010 of dozens of migrants and an American who was killed as he jet skied on a lake on the Texas-Mexico border.
(Additional reporting by Michael O'Boyle, Dave Graham and Mexico Newsroom; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom)