Until the morgue theft, authorities thought Zetas cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano and his driver -- killed in a gunfight outside a baseball stadium in the northeastern border state of Coahuila Sunday -- were simply "two more delinquents who had been killed in a confrontation," Navy Secretary spokesman Rear Adm. Jose Luis Vergara told a national broadcaster.
"What turns on the red lights is precisely the theft or misappropriation of the body, which made local authorities understand this was a character of great importance," he said of Lazcano in the interview, cited by the Mexican newspaper El Sol de Mexico.
Fingerprint tests confirmed the dead man was Lazcano, Mexican authorities said. U.S. forensic scientists were checking DNA samples to confirm the body's identity, a U.S. official in the United States told The Wall Street Journal.
Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire Romero said Tuesday a lack of coordination between military and civilian authorities might have aided the gunmen's ability to storm a Coahuila funeral home around 1:30 p.m. CDT Monday and take the corpses.
"We have to improve coordination to avoid this type of incident," Poire, the face Mexico's war on drug trafficking and organized crime, told reporters in Mexico City after signing an agreement with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
"But there is no doubt about the identity of this person," Mexican newspaper El Economista quoted him as saying.
The heavily armed commandos, their faces covered, put the cadavers into a hearse and forced the funeral home director to drive it away, Coahuila state Attorney General Homero Ramos said
Ramos didn't say what happened to the funeral home director or offer other details.
Lazcano, who went by the nickname "el Lazca," was a 37-year-old army special forces deserter who became the Zetas' top leader, introducing brutal paramilitary tactics to Mexico's intensifying drug war. The United States had a $5 million bounty on his head, while Mexico had a $2.3 million bounty.
Lazcano -- also known as "el Verdugo," or "the Executioner" -- was killed by the Mexican navy's infantry marine corps in a firefight outside a baseball game near the town of Progreso, about 80 miles west of Laredo, Texas.
The Mexican navy said the marines had been called to the stadium around 1 p.m. Sunday by residents complaining of armed men at the game and in a suspicious vehicle outside.
The firefight began when the marines, trying to stop the vehicle, were attacked by grenades thrown from it.
The driver -- identified as Mario Alberto Rodriguez, 44, of Sabinas, Coahuila -- was killed in the vehicle. Lazcano, who tried to flee, was shot about 900 feet away, Ramos said.
Lazcano had been carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle with an attached grenade launcher, Ramos said.
One marine was wounded in the firefight, the navy said. Authorities seized an arsenal of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades.
Lazcano was the most powerful drug lord to fall since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.
Calderon, who leaves office in two months after making the drug war the signature of his presidency, said Tuesday 25 people on a 2009 list of Mexico's 37 most-wanted drug lords had now been killed or arrested.
President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office Dec. 1, has vowed to keep going after drug traffickers while seeking to reduce violent crime.
The Zetas stand out among the country's two or three largest criminal groups for their butchery. They have carried out beheadings -- often publicly displaying their beheaded rivals -- to intimidate enemies.
The severed heads of two police officers found near a government building in Acapulco in 2006 were accompanied by a message, signed "Z," that said, "So that you learn to respect."