Mexican soldiers escort suspect Daniel de Jesus Elizondo Ramirez, known as "El Loco."

Story highlights

NEW: Authorities detail violence, turf battles between cartels

Suspect hurled a grenade and fired at troops as they closed in, a military official says

Known as "El Loco," authorities say Elizondo is a Zetas cartel leader in Nuevo Leon state

Announcement of his capture comes a week after 49 bodies were found along a highway

CNN  — 

One of the main suspects in the killings of 49 people in northern Mexico received orders from the top leaders of the Zetas cartel, a military official said Monday.

Daniel de Jesus Elizondo Ramirez hurled a grenade and fired at troops with a rifle as they closed in on him, Brig. Gen. Edgar Luis Villegas told reporters. After his capture Friday outside Monterrey, Mexico, he disclosed details of the brutal slayings, Villegas said.

Elizondo, also known as “El Loco” (“The Madman”), is a local leader of the Zetas drug cartel in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon, the northern Mexican city where authorities found the decapitated and dismembered bodies abandoned along a highway last week, Villegas said.

The grisly discovery on May 13 drew international attention but was met with a muted response from some Mexicans living in the area, where intensifying turf battles between rival cartels have made violence a daily reality.

Authorities announced Elizondo’s arrest Sunday and presented him to the media Monday, detailing his alleged involvement in kidnappings and killings in northern Mexico, and in the Zetas’ efforts to expand their reach into Guatemala.

Orders for abandoning the 49 mutilated bodies last week came from the highest levels of the Zetas, Villegas said, including Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the group’s top leader.

Elizondo and an accomplice were ordered to abandon the bodies in the town’s central square, but instead left them on the outskirts, Villegas said.

Authorities described him as “one of the suspects responsible” for last week’s killings but did not specify how he was involved in the slayings. He will be detained for 40 days while authorities build their case against him, prosecutors said.

The whereabouts of the suspected accomplice, another member of the Zetas who escaped during a prison uprising in February, were unclear.

Last week, Mexico’s interior minister said the 49 decapitated bodies were the result of a fierce feud over territory and power between the Zetas and members of the allied Gulf and Sinaloa cartels.

Banners hanging throughout the country, purportedly from the Zetas, said the notoriously ruthless cartel had nothing to do with the gruesome crime.

“This was part of a strategy to blame the actions on opposing criminal organizations … to cause confusion among authorities and in the public opinion,” Villegas said Monday.

The Zetas began with deserters from Mexican special forces, who quickly gained a reputation for ruthless violence as hired assassins for Mexico’s Gulf cartel. The partnership between the two criminal groups ended in 2010. Now, officials say the Gulf cartel is allied with the Sinaloa cartel, one of the nation’s most powerful drug trafficking groups.

Elizondo confessed his involvement in other attacks against authorities and members of the Gulf cartel, Villegas said, including carrying out kidnappings and executions and transporting bodies to an area where they were buried or burned.

He also traveled to Guatemala with a group of Zetas hit men in 2008, battling over territory with drug gangs there, Villegas said.

Authorities have not released the identities of the victims of last week’s killings in northern Mexico.

Last week, officials said investigators were seeking DNA samples from families of missing people nationwide in their efforts to identify the bodies. That will be the only way to identify the victims – whose killers cut off their heads, hands and feet – Nuevo Leon state security spokesman Jorge Domene told reporters.

More than 47,500 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since December 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced plans to deploy troops in efforts to combat cartels.

According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, more than 5,300 people have disappeared throughout the country in that same time period, and the bodies of 9,000 dead have not been identified. Officials fear the total number of missing could be far higher, because many disappearances go unreported. contributed to this report.