Discuss as:

Mexican official: Body of slain Zetas drug lord stolen

EPA

Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, also known as "Z-3," is one of Mexico's most wanted men and U.S. authorities have offered a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. Only Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, would represent a bigger prize to the government.

Updated at 11:51 a.m. ET: An armed group stole the body of the slain leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas drug cartel from a funeral home in northern Mexico, just hours after he was killed in a gun battle with Mexican marines, a state prosecutor said on Tuesday.

Mexican marines say initial forensic tests including fingerprints confirmed they had killed Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano, 37, one of Mexico's most wanted men.

Lazcano, alias "The Executioner,'' is the most powerful drug kingpin to fall in President Felipe Calderon's military offensive against the gangs. He was killed along with another suspected Zeta member in Sunday's clash.

The Mexican Navy had said in a statement late on Monday there was "strong evidence" Lazcano had been killed in the exchange. Two Zetas gang members who attacked the marines with grenades from a moving car were killed in the gunfight and initial forensic tests suggested one of the bodies was the former soldier Lazcano, the Navy said in the initial statement.

The Zetas, considered one of the two most powerful drug gangs in Mexico, have perpetrated some of the most sickening acts seen in the country's drug war that has killed about 60,000 people during Calderon's term.

Mexico nabs high-ranking Zetas drug gang member 'El Taliban'

A video "mockumentary" that shows children as kidnappers, corrupt cops and drug traffickers sparked a fierce debate in violence-torn Mexico. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

Lazcano, or "Z-3" was one of Mexico's most wanted men and U.S. authorities had offered a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. Only Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, would represent a bigger prize to the government.

Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation, earlier said that if Lazcano's death was confirmed, it would prompt a bloody struggle for control of areas dominated by the Zetas, such as the northern industrial city of Monterrey.

The army had stepped up patrols in Coahuila after the killing last week of the son of the former chairman of the country's most powerful political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Mexico's drug war is also part of a drug culture with roots in music, movies and even religion.

132 inmates tunnel out of Mexico prison near US border

Investigators said the murder of Jose Eduardo Moreira, who was also the nephew of the Coahuila state governor, may have been a revenge attack by the Zetas against the family for losses the gang suffered in a recent clash with security forces.

Moreira's death caused a political outcry and demands for his killers to be brought to justice.

Army deserters
The Zetas were formed by a band of army deserters who acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before breaking away in 2010 to fight a bloody turf war with their former bosses and other drug gangs, including Guzman's powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

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.

President: Mexico gang-related deaths fall by 15 percent in 2012

Their rapid expansion has 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 extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.

The Zetas gang had recently appeared to be rupturing due to disputes among leading gang members. A longstanding rivalry between Lazcano and his deputy Miguel Trevino, alias "Z-40," exploded into violence in recent months.

While Mexico's government and rival gangs may welcome the death of Lazcano, a battle for control of the Zetas could become a major headache for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI, who takes office on Dec. 1.

Debate rages over Mexico 'spillover violence' in US

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.

Mexican officials arrested on Saturday the alleged Zetas leader in Tamaulipas state, who 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.

Reuters contributed to this report.

More world stories from NBC News:

Follow World News from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook