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Mexican government: Slain drug lord was 'spiritual leader' of cartel

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Nazario Moreno Gonzalez dubbed himself the "savior of the people," according to a office of Mexico's president.
Nazario Moreno Gonzalez dubbed himself the "savior of the people," according to a office of Mexico's president.
  • Authorities say Nazario Moreno Gonzalez crafted La Familia's philosophy
  • His death comes after two days of clashes
  • The cartel espouses religious values and claims to protect people
  • It is known for violence, including hurling decapitated heads onto a dance floor

(CNN) -- An alleged drug cartel boss killed in clashes with Mexican authorities was also a "spiritual leader" who used religion to recruit criminals and strengthen his stronghold, according to a Mexican government report.

Nazario Moreno Gonzalez dubbed himself the "savior of the people" and crafted the violent La Familia Michoacana cartel's philosophy, outlined in a "bible" provided to new recruits, a profile released Friday by the office of Mexico's president says.

"Moreno started as a migrant in California, continued trafficking marijuana on the border and became the leader of one of the most violent criminal organizations in the history of Mexico," the report says.

La Familia began its operations in the state of Michoacan at the beginning of the decade, the country's national security spokesman told reporters Friday. But it grabbed national attention in 2006, after reportedly hurling five decapitated heads of rival gang members onto a dance floor.

Local media described a message found at the gruesome scene: "La Familia does not kill for money, does not kill women, does not kill innocents. The only ones who die are those who must die. Everyone should know: this is divine justice."

Mexican authorities said Moreno's tenure as one of the cartel's leaders ended Thursday, when he was gunned down after two days of shootouts between authorities and suspected members of the organization he founded.

Mexico's drug war myths dispelled

At least three members of La Familia were killed and three others were captured during the operation, Mexican national security spokesman Alejandro Poire said Friday.

Suspected members of the cartel set trucks and buses ablaze on highways to block approaching federal police during the clashes -- a reaction that Mexican authorities said was a sign that they were closing in on high-profile targets.

Moreno was one of them, Poire told reporters, describing him as the leader and founder of an organization that had "terrorized the population" of Michoacan since its founding, "not only trafficking and producing drugs, but also extorting, kidnapping, and murdering people."

Nicknames for the 40-year-old drug lord included "El Chayo," "The Doctor" and "The Craziest One." The Mexican government's dossier describes him as the brains behind a large number of killings.

But he started small. As a teenager, he immigrated illegally to the United States and worked in several locations in California, the profile says. And he was arrested for the first time on drug trafficking charges in McAllen, Texas, in 1994.

Ten years later, authorities there issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of six transactions introducing more than 5 tons of marijuana into the United States, the Mexican government's profile says. And the U.S. Department of the Treasury included his name on a list last year when announcing new sanctions against those who made financial deals with the cartel.

Officials say Moreno played a key role in La Familia's philosophy -- frequently displayed on banners hung in public places -- which claims to protect the state's people.

"The group may have initially formed as a vigilante group to counter local street crime and law enforcement corruption," a statement released in 2009 by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said.

The approach showed a "strong religious background," the DEA said.

"It purportedly originated to protect locals from the violence of drug cartels. Now, La Familia Michoacana uses drug proceeds to fuel their agenda that encompasses a Robin Hood-type mentality -- steal from the rich and give to the poor," the statement said. "They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor. La Familia Michoacana also gives money to schools and local officials."

Intelligence reports indicate that the cartel is "heavily involved in the production of methamphetamine" for export to the United States, according to the DEA, in addition to the distribution of cocaine and marijuana.

But Mexican authorities say the ideology advocated by the cartel's leaders includes banning members from consuming drugs and alcohol with the goal of keeping a tighter emotional grip on subordinates.

"The indoctrination of this group consists of courses in self-improvement, values, ethical principles and morals in keeping with the purposes of the criminal organization. With the objective that their subordinates separate themselves from drugs and alcohol and they unite with their families," Mexico's public safety ministry said in a statement last year after capturing the alleged head of La Familia's training operations.

The Mexican government's profile of Moreno describes him as one of the drug traffickers "with the most economic power and support from police organizations."

But Mexican authorities said he was squarely in their cross-hairs this week.

Five police officers and three civilians -- including two minors -- were also killed in the clashes, Poire told reporters.

But he said that the government's offensive would continue, noting that more armed forces were on the way to the area.

"This is the moment to intensify the pressure on this organization in order to diminish crime in the region effectively and permanently," he said.

CNN's Ariel Crespo and Rafael Romo contributed to this report.