Mexico says it has killed Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of the brutal Zetas drug gang, but that his body has been snatched from a funeral parlour by armed men.
Mexico's navy said on Tuesday fingerprint tests had confirmed Lazcano and another man were killed in a firefight in a small village in the northern state of Coahuila on Sunday afternoon.
But it appeared the military may have been unaware it had killed Lazcano until his corpse was stolen from the funeral parlour in the northern town of Sabinas before dawn on Monday. If his death is confirmed, Lazcano would be the most powerful kingpin to fall in a six-year battle against cartels
"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.
Al Jazeera's Adam Raney, reporting from Mexico City, said it appeared the government may have been "embarrassed" by the loss of Lazcano's body.
"This should be the moment of greatest victory or of greatest bragging rights for President Felipe Calderon. This is the biggest catch or kill on his watch and we have not heard anything from him, not even anything on his Twitter account," he said.
"That could be perhaps because there is some embarrassment over the fact that the body was taken away by gunmen right after they did an analysis on him."
Calderon hailed the navy in a speech on Tuesday saying that "all the available evidence clearly indicated" Lazcano had been gunned down on Sunday.
But the president did not say that he knew for sure Lazcano was dead.
US authorities were also unable to confirm the death of Lazcano, who was identified in Mexico from the prints of three
fingers on his right hand, the navy said.
Lazcano, alias "The Executioner," had a $5m US bounty on his head and was the highest profile drug lord to be killed or captured in a military offensive launched when Calderon took office in late 2006.
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 Mexican special forces soldier who defected to join the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s.
In its statement, the Mexican navy said: "Information was obtained after the first forensics tests were carried out that yielded indications that suggest that one of the bodies is Heriberto Lazcano."
It said the shootout took place after it received complaints about armed men in the area and sent out a patrol to check out the reports.
Live Box 201210961244305159
The men tossed grenades at the patrol from a moving vehicle, wounding one of the marines.Two of the armed men were killed in the ensuing shootout, the navy said.
The Zetas cartel that Lazcano helped found with other deserters from an elite army unit went on to carry out some of Mexico's bloodiest massacres, biggest jail-breaks and fiercest attacks on authorities.
Lazcano is suspected of involvement in hundreds of killings, including the June 2004 killing of Francisco Ortiz Franco, a top editor of a crusading weekly newspaper in Tijuana that often reported on drug trafficking.
Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas recruited more hit men, many of them former Mexican soldiers, and hired "kaibiles" - Guatemalan soldiers trained in counterinsurgency - transforming what had been a small group of assassins into a ruthless gang of enforcers for the Gulf cartel.
The Zetas were also in charge of protecting the Gulf cartel's drug shipments.
The Zetas finally split from their former bosses in 2010 and have since been fighting a vicious battle for control of the drug business in northeastern Mexico, the traditional home base of the Gulf cartel.
The result has been a surge in drug-related killings.
The Zetas earned their notoriety for brutality by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in the resort city of Acapulco.
The severed heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed "Z" that said: "So that you learn to respect."
Even with the death of Lazcano, the Zetas would still be run by a ruthless leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who has a reputation for being even more brutal than Lazcano.
More than 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since December 2006, when Calderon put the military in charge of a campaign against organised crime.
Most of the deaths occurred in states alongside the Mexican border with the US.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies