MEXICO CITY – Known as "The Craziest One," he indoctrinated gang members in a pseudo-Christian ideology, and purportedly wrote a book of moral values for his cult-like cartel — all the while gruesomely decapitating his foes and selling cocaine and methamphetamine by the ton.
In many ways Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who the government says was killed during two days of shootouts between his gang and federal police in the western state of Michoacan, was the most bizarre of Mexico's druglords.
He announced the emergence of his La Familia drug cartel four years ago by having his gang roll five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub and vowing to protect President Felipe Calderon's home state from rival cartels.
Calderon responded by deploying thousands of federal police into Michoacan seeking to crush La Familia, warning that the cartel was corrupting local officials, extorting businesses and terrorizing the population.
The crackdown has expanded to trafficking hotspots across Mexico and brought down seven top cartel leaders over the past year, three of them arrested and four of them killed.
But Moreno was the first from La Familia to fall during the bloody war against drug cartels that has at times turned pockets of Mexico into battles zones and seen 28,000 deaths since it began in late 2006.
Police learned that Moreno — also known as "El Chayo" or "The Doctor" — was killed in a clash Thursday between cartel gunmen and federal police, said Alejandro Poire, the government spokesman for security issues.
Poire said cartel gunmen fled with several of their casualties and Moreno's body has not been recovered. But a statement from the presidential office said his death has been confirmed.
Poire said police recovered the bodies of three other suspected La Familia members and detained three others.
Five officers and three civilians — including an 8-month-old baby and a teenage girl — were also killed in the shootouts, which began Wednesday night when La Familia gunmen attacked federal officers in Moreno's home city of Apatzingan and fired on cars.
The gunmen torched vehicles across Michoacan and used them as barricades, even blockading all entrances into the state capital of Morelia to prevent federal police from sending reinforcements.
Moreno, 40, was considered the ideological leader of La Familia, setting a code of conduct for its members that prohibits using hard drugs or dealing them within Mexican territory. He purportedly wrote a religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration profile, La Familia members are believed to undergo a three- to six-month training camp in Michoacan.
"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," the profile says. "La Familia Michoacana also gives money to school and local officials."
The Mexican government profile said Moreno "erected himself as the 'Messiah,' using the Bible to profess to poor people and obtain their loyalty."
The cartel reportedly takes inspiration from an odd source: the book "Wild at Heart," by American evangelical author John Eldredge of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Ransomed Heart Ministries.
Last January, authorities in Michoacan seized a car with 23 guns, four grenades — and nine copies of "Wild at Heart." The books had inscriptions signed by "The Craziest One."
His wife, meanwhile, hosts self-improvement seminars in Michoacan, including one in April at a club in Apatzingan that was promoted with posters titled "Let's help create a better future," according to the Mexican government.
In February, the U.S. government added Moreno and six other reputed La Familia leaders to its "Kingpin Act" list, a move that prohibits American citizens and firms from having any business dealings with them and freezes any U.S. assets they may have.
The other reputed La Familia leader is former school teacher Servando Gomez. He is described as the operational chief of the cartel in an October 2009 Justice Department indictment for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine to the United States.
The indictment says Gomez is in charge of acquiring weapons for the cartel and may be behind the murder of 12 Mexican federal law enforcement officers whose bodies were found in July 2009 following the arrest of another La Familia leader.
Moreno migrated to California as a teenager and eventually entered the drug trade there, according to a Mexican government profile. Back in 2003, a federal grand jury in McAllen, Texas, indicted him on charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Moreno fled back to Mexico around that time and began his ascent in the drug world, according to the profile.
Poire said Moreno emerged as the leader of La Familia in 2006, when the gang — then known as "The Business" — broke off from the Gulf cartel and declared its independence by rolling the severed heads into a disco in the mountain city of Uruapan.
A message left with the heads declared: "La Familia doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocents. Only those who deserve to die will die."
The government profile said Moreno set out to kill top members of the Gulf cartel after breaking off from that gang, with the complicity of some state and federal law enforcement officials.
La Familia has since become one of the biggest methamphetamine traffickers to the United States. But Mexico's government claims the gang has been severely weakened after four years of fighting off its rivals and security forces.
Several alleged leading La Familia traffickers have been arrested in recent months. One of those suspects, Sergio Moreno Godinez, said under police interrogation last month that the cartel is in decline.
He confirmed the authenticity of a letter, e-mailed to journalists and dropped on the streets of several towns, saying the cartel is willing to disband if the government can improve security for Michoacan.
"What we have seen in the last days is a criminal organization repudiated by the population, and which has been significantly weakened," Poire said. "This is demonstrated by its false calls for a truce and the confessions of its members."
Mexican authorities put a $2 million bounty on Moreno's head in March 2009. His official wanted poster — featuring a fuzzy photograph of a middle-aged man with a thin face and a mustachio — accuses him of drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder.
Mexican authorities believe La Familia operates "by means of an executive council" compromised of both drug traffickers and government officials, according to the DEA.
In 2009, the Calderon government arrested more than 30 Michoacan state and local officials, including 12 mayors, accusing them of protecting La Familia.
The highly touted sweep was meant to show no politicians are immune from prosecution. But the cases have since unraveled for lack of evidence in one of the biggest setbacks of Calderon's drug war. Only one of the officials — a former mayor — remains in prison.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.