Officials are trying to verify whether Ramon Arellano Felix, one of the four bloodthirsty brothers who heads Mexico's Tijuana drug cartel, has been killed.
The inquiry began when a fake identity document was found on a bullet-ridden corpse after a shootout in the Pacific resort town of Mazatlan a fortnight ago. The identity photo bore a striking resemblance to the FBI's mugshot of Arellano Felix, for whose capture there is a $2m (£1.4m) reward.
But before federal officials could retrieve the body, it was whisked away by men claiming to be relatives and has now vanished. "It is not in our possession," said the Mexican prosecutor general, Rafael Macedo. "We are investigating, looking for evidence."
US authorities are just as keen to solve the mystery and are chasing a lead that links one of the Mazatlan hitmen in custody to a San Diego gang.
Arellano Felix, 37, is known as the enforcer for a drug gang that offers officials million-dollar bribes and butchers anyone who refuses. The Tijuana cartel is accused of murdering 300 policemen, lawyers, judges, rivals and even a Catholic cardinal over the past 15 years, while moving tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and amphetamines across the border.
Although Arellano Felix's death is not confirmed, law enforcement officials are braced for a retaliatory killing spree. The villains portrayed in Stephen Soderbergh's film, Traffic, were a gentler version of the Arellano Felix brothers. "The cartel is already reorganising to fill the vacuum," said Jesus Blancornelas, the editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta.
The shootout occurred after police spotted gunmen in a car. Two of the suspects and a policemen were killed, but three men – including a police officer – were arrested. All have denied involvement in an alleged turf war between the Tijuana cartel and a rival gang run by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.Reuse content