MEXICO CITY – The eccentric leader of the brutal La Familia drug cartel is believed to have been killed in a shootout during two days of fighting between federal police and gunmen that terrified civilians across a western Mexican state, the government said Friday.
The death of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez — nicknamed "The Craziest One" — would be a major blow to a drug cartel that rose to national prominence four years ago by rolling severed heads into a nightclub and declaring that its mission was to protect Michoacan state from rival gangs and petty criminals.
Police have received information that the 40-year-old Gonzalez — 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.
Cartel gunmen have been fleeing with their causalities, and police believe that Moreno was among the dead, Poire said. He 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 the city of Apatzingan and fired on cars.
The gunmen torched vehicles across Michoacan and used them as barricades, even blockading all entrances into its capital of Morelia to prevent federal police from sending reinforcements.
Moreno is 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 has written a religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
The U.S. government added Moreno and six other reputed La Familia leaders to its "Kingpin Act" list in February, a move that prohibits American citizens and firms from having any business dealings with them and freezes any U.S. assets they may have.
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 town 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."
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was born in Michoacan, responded by deploying tens of thousands of soldiers to the state to crush the cartel — an increasingly bloody fight that has since expanded to other drug trafficking hotspots across the country. More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-gang violence since.
La Familia has since become one of the biggest methamphetamine traffickers to the United States. Meanwhile, the cartel has proclaimed in banners and even newspaper advertisements that it is trying to protect Michoacan from other cartels and common criminals.
The government claims that La Familia has been severely weakened after four years of fighting off its rivals and security forces.
Several 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.
In 2006, El Universal newspaper said it had interviewed two La Familia leaders, identifying one as "The Craziest One." He was quoted as saying: "There is a new policy: We are going to expose those who sell drugs, to those who steal, to those who kidnap, anybody who is out of line. This is the policy of The Business."
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."
Mexican authorities believe La Familia operates "by means of an executive council" that includes 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 — accused of protecting La Familia in a highly touted sweep meant to show no politicians are immune from prosecution. 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.
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.