Mexico confirmed Tuesday that its forces killed Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, reputed boss of the ruthless Zetas cartel, but it remains uncertain what effect, if any, the killing will have on the larger scourge of drug trafficking and violence.
The kingpin's death is arguably the Mexican government's biggest takedown since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive six years ago, but the record is mixed on the impact of such successes.
Mexican marines killed Lazcano in a shootout on Sunday in a small town in northern Mexico, 130 miles from the Texas border, the country's navy said.
Lazcano was a onetime special forces soldier who became a founding member of the Zetas, a group accused of some of the most violent atrocities that have come to define the drug wars.
In a twist, a group of armed men stole Lazcano's body from a funeral home, though authorities had already taken fingerprints and photographs to confirm his identity.
Lazcano's death "certainly weakens dramatically the Zetas," said George Grayson, professor of government at the College of William & Mary and author of a book on the cartel. The death is the latest in a string of blows against its leadership, he said.
Other analysts said it was unclear how Lazcano's death would affect the Zetas.
"Even though the head falls, there is immediately a substitute," said Anabel Hernandez, a Mexican journalist who has investigated the country's cartels.
The intelligence firm Stratfor said it expects Lazcano's death to have little impact on the Zetas' operations.
Lazcano's health had been failing and he had already transferred much control of the organization to Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, Stratfor said.
The United States and Mexico combined had offered rewards of more than $7 million for information leading to his capture.
Praising the navy's efforts Tuesday, Calderon described Lazcano as "one of the most important and most dangerous" people on Mexico's list of most wanted criminals.
The organization he led, Calderon said, is behind "countless high-impact crimes and extreme violence that many communities in the country have suffered."
The Zetas are responsible for smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs annually to the United States, generating many millions of dollars.
The name of the cartel conjures up some of the most violent images of the drug war: a casino fire that killed 52 people, the deaths of 72 migrants, and tortured bodies hanging from bridges.
The marines who killed Lazcano had responded Sunday to reports of an armed group in the town of Progreso, in the northern state of Coahuila, the navy said.
They were attacked with grenades thrown from a moving vehicle and a firefight ensued, it said.
A local newspaper reported scenes of "panic and terror" as the shootout erupted next to where families were enjoying a baseball game.
Rather than after an ambush, the shooting started after the marines tried to search a suspicious Ford Ranger, the Zocalo newspaper said.
Authorities at the scene recovered two assault rifles, a grenade launcher and 12 grenades, as well as a rocket launcher and two rockets.