Authorities were awaiting DNA tests for final confirmation they had the body of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, the attorney general’s office said yesterday.
The shootout happened near Apaztingan in western Michoacan state, where the Knights Templar cartel has ruled through stealing, killing and extortion.
Moreno, nicknamed “The Craziest One”, was leader of the La Familia cartel when he supposedly died during a two-day gun battle with federal police in December 2010 in Michoacan, his home state. However, his body was never recovered.
The government of then-president Felipe Calderon officially declared Moreno dead, saying it had proof, but some Michoacan residents had reported seeing him since then.
Since the earlier death report, La Familia Michoacana has morphed into the more vicious and powerful Knights Templar.
Under both names, the cartel has preached Moreno’s quasi-religious doctrine and moral code, even as it became a major trafficker of methamphetamine to the United States.
When federal attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam was recently asked about the rumour that Moreno was still alive, he said: “We can’t confirm or deny it officially as long as we have no concrete evidence.”
After the 2010 death report, Moreno reportedly helped build himself up as folk hero, erecting shrines to himself and the Knights Templar, which adopted the Maltese cross as a symbol.
The hunt for him spiked last year as vigilantes, tired of the cartel’s control of the state and government inaction, took up arms against the Knights Templar, saying they wanted to get the cartel kingpins. All of the civilian “self-defence” group leaders said Moreno was alive.
The news of his death comes just weeks after the capture of Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the country’s largest cartel, the Sinaloa. He surrendered on 22 February after 13 years on the run when marines raided his home in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan.
Another cartel leader, Zetas chief Miguel Angel Trevino, was captured last summer, again by the Mexican navy’s elite troops.
Moreno was born in the Michoacan farming hub of Apatzingan in 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 including 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 from the US-Mexico border seeking to take over his home state, said Alfredo Castillo, federal commissioner for security and development in Michoacan.
Mr Castillo said that 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,” he said.
But once the Zetas left, La Familia took over the criminal activity. The state government failed to stop La Familia, which many people claimed had either bought off, co-opted or threatened officials into submission.
Moreno lived up to his nickname in many ways – he 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, other top leaders of the gang were killed or captured in Mr 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.