MEXICO CITY, Distrito Federal (AFP) – Three years after Mexican drug lord Nazario Moreno was declared dead, doubts abound about his demise, with stories of him indoctrinating recruits every Sunday and hosting a feast last year.
Even though his body was never recovered, the government announced on December 10, 2010, that "El Chayo" was killed after an hours-long gunfight with federal police near the city of Apatzingan, in the western state of Michoacan.
At the time, then government security spokesman Alejandro Poire cited "several elements and information obtained" in the operation to declare that the head of La Familia Michoacana cartel was dead.
But the new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December, is now checking whether the man also known as "The Craziest One," who would be 43 years old today, is really dead.
"We are corroborating it. He was allegedly killed by the federal police, but during the previous government," a current government spokesman told AFP.
La Familia began to crumble after his disappearance, leading to the creation of an offshoot christened as the Knights Templar, whose brutality prompted civilians in Michoacan to form vigilante forces and the government to deploy thousands of troops in May.
Several residents of Michoacan insist that Moreno is now leading the Knights Templar, who were accused of killing a vice admiral in an ambush last Sunday, days after clashes with police that left four officers and 20 gangsters dead.
While the government vows to pacify the state, a federal police officer in the area said official intelligence states that the capo is hiding in the rough mountain terrain of a region known as Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) -- the epicenter of clashes between police and the cartel.
The resurrection of Moreno would probably suit the drug kingpin, a self-styled "messiah" who wrote the "Gospel of La Familia" -- a sort of gang bible with rules barring its members from consuming drugs or alcohol.
A leader of a vigilante group said he was among 60 people invited by Moreno to a dinner in a house in the small town of Aguililla in September 2012.
"It's the kind of invitation that you can't turn down," the vigilante said.
The guests arrived on time for the food, music and dancing. "El Chayo" showed up three hours later, with armed men providing security at the house while others monitored the only road leading to the town.
The guests were ordered to turn off their cellphones and were forbidden from leaving until after Moreno had left at dawn.
"He didn't do any proselytism," the vigilante said. Instead, he displayed left-wing politics and revealed that he was now known as Ernesto Villa Moreno, in honor of Argentine guerrillero Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Mexican revolution hero Pancho Villa.
But Moreno told the group that his men were "very good at killing Zetas," he said, referring to members of a rival cartel.
Juan Manuel, an 18-year-old who says he was recruited by the cartel to be a hitman at age 13, said that Moreno and other Knights Templar leaders meet to indoctrinate their men every Sunday.
"El Chayo has very large weapons," said Juan Manuel, who said he recently left the cartel and last saw Moreno two months ago.
Moreno began his criminal career selling marijuana in the United States, where he lived as an undocumented migrant.
He founded La Familia after returning to his native Michoacan and his cartel, which vowed to impose "divine justice," made its presence known in 2006, when it rolled five human heads down a bar's dance floor.
After his alleged death, Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," created the Knights Templar, taking inspiration from La Familia's religious image by adopting the red cross of Christian crusaders and painting it on the side of cartel cars.
"The Craziest One" is not the first Mexican drug capo whose death is shrouded in doubt.
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias "The Lord of the Skies," is said to have died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery but some in Mexico believe he is still alive
Last year, the navy said marines had killed Zetas cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano, but his body was stolen from a funeral home hours later and has never been recovered.