MEXICO CITY -- You only die twice -- or so it seemed for Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, leader of Mexico’s notorious Knights Templar drug cartel.
In December 2010, Mexican officials believed that they had killed Moreno, known alternately as “El Chayo” and “El Mas Loco” (“The Craziest”), in a shootout in the troubled state of Michoacan. His body was not recovered, however, and many locals doubted the story.
Since then, western Mexico has been rife with rumors that the charismatic leader had been seen. He has earned a cultlike following for preaching a cracked version of evangelical Christianity to go along with his cartel’s extensive extortion and drug-running rackets.
On Sunday, the federal government again announced that it had killed Moreno, this time in a Sunday morning shootout in Michoacan. And this time, officials said, they have a body, and the fingerprints, to prove it.
In a news conference, Monte Alejandro Rubido, the executive secretary of Mexico’s National Public Security System, said the Mexican military tried to arrest Moreno on Sunday morning in the municipality of Tumbiscatio but had to fire upon him after they were attacked.
Rubido said federal authorities had been receiving “constant reports” from locals that Moreno was, in fact, still alive.
Afterward, Tomas Zeron, an official with the federal attorney general’s office, showed fingerprints and thumbprints from a body that was recovered, projecting them alongside what they said were matching prints on file with the Mexican military. Zeron said the government had “100%" identified the body as Moreno’s.
The killing of Moreno -- if he is really dead this time -- is another high-profile victory in the drug war for the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December 2012 promising to fight the cartels in a smarter and more efficient manner.
On Feb. 22, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, was apprehended in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan in a joint Mexican-U.S. operation.
Although the takedown of these crime bosses may deal a short-term operational blow to their respective criminal networks, it remains unclear whether the Peña Nieto government has devised an effective long-term strategy to reduce the power of the cartels inside Mexican territory.
The Knights Templar have created one of the most pressing conundrums for Peña Nieto in his short time in office. In January, the administration had to send a massive surge of troops and federal police to Michoacan territory controlled by the cartel after an uprising of vigilante “self-defense” groups who were threatening to take on the drug group and potentially spark a regional conflagration.
The self-defense groups have since been integrated into a preexisting, federally controlled rural defense corps, and in some cases are working alongside troops and federal police in an effort to break the Templars’ control.
The Knights Templar, a spin-off of the La Familia drug cartel, has adopted some of the original group’s quasi-religious trappings, as well as rhetoric in which its members cast themselves as true protectors of the people.
Some residents of western Mexico readily bought into the mythology, constructing religious shrines to Moreno. But the day-to-day operation of the Knights Templar appears to have fallen to a former schoolteacher named Servando “La Tuta” Gomez Martinez, who remains at large.