Published March 10, 2014
MEXICO CITY – Cartel kingpin Nazario Moreno Gonzalez had two lives.
One ended in late 2010 when the leader of a vicious drug gang ruling the western state of Michoacan was supposedly killed by federal police. The second ended just after his 44th birthday, when he died in a shootout with government troops early Sunday.
The federal government had something Sunday that was missing the first time — his body.
In Mexico's campaign to take down top capos, the killing of a supposed dead man was the most bizarre event yet, even after the capture two weeks ago of Mexico's most wanted and powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, another near-mythical figure who surrendered without a fight after 13 year on the run since escaping from prison.
Residents of Michoacan had reported seeing Moreno, known as the "The Craziest One," around the state since the government reported he was killed in a two-day gunbattle with federal police in December 2010, though authorities conceded they never found his body.
Mexican authorities had been tracking him since January, and soldiers and marines confronted him in Timbuscatio, a town in the remote mountains of the western farming state, his cartel's home base. Officials said the troops fired to respond to an "aggression" as they tried to make an arrest.
Tomas Zeron, head of the criminal investigation unit for the federal Attorney General's Office, said his identity had been confirmed 100 percent by fingerprints, but added that tests would continue.
"This is a victory. He did a lot of damage to the people of Michoacan," said Hipolito Mora, one of the leaders of civilian "self-defense" groups that rose up last year against the current incarnation of Moreno's cartel, the Knights Templar. The vigilante violence caused the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto to finally act forcefully against the gang.
Moreno, who spent his teenage years in the United States, founded La Familia cartel, which was the first target of former President Felipe Calderon's assault on Mexican drug trafficking. While Calderon touted Moreno's "death" and his dismantling of La Familia as a victory, Moreno and his cartel morphed into the more ruthless Knights Templars. Maneuvering about in hiding, he built shrines to himself and his quasi-religious criminal organization.
Calderon was not immediately available for comment on Moreno's killing. But Alejandro Poire, his security spokesman at the time, issued a statement late Sunday saying they had based the announcement on security information that clearly proved inaccurate. He commended Pena Nieto's administration and wished them more success.
"I don't think they want to open their mouths much right now," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "The successes of Pena Nieto so quickly in his government at the same time show the failure of the Calderon administration."
La Familia and the Templars both distributed literature and preached faith in God and a moral code, even as they became major traffickers of methamphetamine to the U.S. and ruled Michoacan through stealing, killing and extortion.
Moreno was born in the Michoacan farming hub of Apatzingan on March 8, 1970, and migrated to California as a teenager, eventually entering the drug trade there, according to a Mexican government profile. In 2003, a federal grand jury in McAllen, Texas, indicted him on charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.
He fled back to Mexico around that time. He founded La Familia in 2005, recruiting young men to fight the brutal Zetas cartel, which had come all the way from the U.S.-Mexico border seeking to take over his home state, said Alfredo Castillo, federal commissioner for security and development in Michoacan.
At first, residents supported Moreno and his fight.
"They didn't see La Familia as a criminal group, rather just young men recruited to expel the Zetas in the face of a lack of support from the federal and local authorities," Castillo recently told MVS radio.
But once the Zetas left, La Familia took over the criminal activity. The state government proved impotent in stopping La Familia, which many people claimed had either bought off, co-opted or threatened officials into submission.
La Familia reportedly took its 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. A Mexican government profile said Moreno "erected himself as the 'Messiah,' using the Bible to profess to poor people and obtain their loyalty."
He set a code of conduct that prohibited using hard drugs or dealing them within Mexican territory.
"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," a DEA profile said. "La Familia Michoacana also gives money to school and local officials."
Moreno reportedly wrote his own religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
He lived up to his nickname in many ways.
Moreno announced the emergence of his La Familia cartel by having his gang roll five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub.
After the 2010 battle in which Moreno was supposedly killed as the first leader from La Familia to fall, other top leaders of the gang were killed or captured in Calderon's assault severely weakened the cartel. Some of the surviving leaders joined their old enemy, the Zetas, for help in fighting government forces and hanging on to their domain.
Moreno's closest ally, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, covered for Moreno by publicly mourning his death, and the two broke from La Familia, which fell apart and the remnants were driven out of Michoacan. They created the Knights Templar, which grew into an even greater terror to the community.
The cartel went so far as to charge extortion to lime growers, cutters and packers to work, and stole minerals from the state's mines and sold them on the black market to China through the Michoacan port city of Lazaro Cardenas, which the Knights Templar also came to control.
Only when the vigilante groups took up arms in February 2013 and began driving the Knights Templar from much of the state's Tierra Caliente region did the federal government assign a commissioner to take over the state.
In the weeks leading up to Moreno's death, authorities had captured another Templars' leader, Dionisio Plancarte, then Moreno's half-brother and then the son of Gomez, who remains at large.
The U.S. Embassy said it had no information on whether U.S. agencies were involved. The Drug Enforcement Administration did not respond to calls and emails Sunday. DEA agents worked closely with Mexican marines on the Guzman capture as well as the high-profile takedown of Zetas cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino near the border town of Nuevo Laredo last summer.
Moreno is not the first drug lord rumored to have survived his own reported death.
The body of Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano was stolen about 12 hours after he was shot by Mexican marines on Oct. 7, 2012, causing public skepticism that he was killed. Authorities said fingerprints and DNA taken before the theft proved he was slain.
In 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as the "Lord of the Skies" for the amounts of cocaine he moved in large airplanes, died while having plastic surgery to change his appearance, though many still doubt his death.