MEXICO CITY (AP) - Forensic evidence indicates a man killed in an early morning shootout with marines in western Mexico was a leader of the Knights Templar Cartel who the government reported slain in 2010, Mexican officials said Sunday.
Authorities were awaiting DNA tests for final confirmation that they had the body of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, said an official in the federal government and one with the Attorney General’s Office. Both agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the investigation.
Moreno’s death would be one of the more bizarre twists in Mexico’s assault on drug cartels, in which two others of the country’s most powerful capos have been captured in the last year without a shot fired.
One of the officials said Sunday’s shootout happened near the farming hub of Apaztingan in the heart of western Michoacan state, where the Knights Templar have ruled through stealing, killing and extortion.
Moreno, nicknamed “The Craziest One,” would have turned 44 on Saturday, according to a government birthdate. He led the La Familia cartel when he supposedly perished in a two-day gunbattle with federal police in December 2010 in Michoacan, his home state.
No corpse was found then, however. The government of then-President Felipe Calderon officially declared him dead, saying it had proof, but some residents of Michoacan had reported seeing Moreno since then.
Since the earlier death report, his former cartel, La Familia Michoacana, morphed into the more vicious and powerful Knights Templar. The cartel under both names preached Moreno’s quasi-religious doctrine and moral code even as it became a major trafficker of methamphetamine to the U.S.
When federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam was recently asked about the rumor that Moreno was still alive, he said: “We can’t confirm or deny it officially as long as we have no concrete evidence, and I can tell you that we have nothing.”
After the 2010 death report, Moreno reportedly helped build himself up as folk hero, erecting shrines to himself and to 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-defense” group leaders said Moreno was alive.
His reported killing comes on the heels of the Feb. 22 capture of Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who surrendered peacefully after 13 years on the lam when marines raided his condo in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan. Another other top drug capo, Zetas chief Miguel Angel Trevino, was captured last summer, also by the Mexican navy’s elite troops.
Though Guzman’s capture leaked to the press, Mexican authorities waited several hours before announcing it so they could solidly confirm they held the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest. They later gave a detailed explanation of how they fingerprinted him and measured his facial features against photographs as well as analyzed genetic markers from a DNA swab.