By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and KATHERINE CORCORAN, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — 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.